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Timeline: The key dates in Ireland's initial response to the global Covid-19 pandemic

We take a look at the events leading up to the decision to bring in Ireland’s first major coronavirus measures.

IT’S OVER 100 days since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Ireland on 29 February.

The situation in the following weeks developed rapidly, culminating in Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s landmark speech from Washington on 12 March when he began “I need to talk to you about coronavirus”. 

What happened that day is the subject of an in-depth oral history published on TheJournal.ie today as people from all walks of life – including the key decision makers – tell the story of what happened on the day Ireland changed.

It may only be three months ago, but an awful lot happened very quickly within the space of a few weeks either side of 12 March.

Here’s a timeline of all the developments leading up to the Taoiseach’s announcement:

26 February

It had been brewing for several days, but Wednesday 26 February was the day that the Six Nations rugby game between Ireland and Italy was called off

The Department of Foreign Affairs had already amended its travel advisory to Italy, telling citizens to avoid non-essential travel to the regions affected by coronavirus. By this time, Ireland and other European countries were watching with alarm at the speed and severity with which Covid-19 had spread in Italy. 

Two days before, Health Minister Simon Harris said that some “big decisions” would need to be made about mass gatherings, including the Six Nations and potentially the St Patrick’s Day celebrations around the country. The following day, he said the government’s view was that the game shouldn’t go ahead

In calling off the game on the 26th, the IRFU said it was “happy to comply” with the instruction from the the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

Health authorities had begun to test people at this point, and the public were warned that it was likely there could be a confirmed case in Ireland soon. 

27 February

It was on this day that the first case was diagnosed on the island of Ireland, when a person in Northern Ireland was confirmed to have Covid-19.

The person had travelled from northern Italy to Dublin and travelled on to Northern Ireland. Health authorities said that the HSE would seek to contact anyone who sat within two rows of the affected person on the plane. 

Minister Harris said the general public should continue to adhere to the public health protocols. By this time, the public was being advised to do the things we’ve all now become accustomed to – including washing your hands thoroughly and regularly, isolate if you have symptoms etc.

29 February

er-wm0jxkaulkuc-2 Dr Tony Holohan led the press briefing on the day the first case was confirmed. Source: Sean Murray/TheJournal.ie

This was the date the first case was confirmed in the Republic of Ireland

Speaking at a Department of Health press conference – which notably didn’t yet feature social distancing – chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said it was “not unexpected” and that “we have been preparing for this eventuality for many weeks now”. 

He said a process was under way to contact people who made contact with the patient but added this will take “some time”.

1 March

The following day, it emerged that a school in Dublin was to close for 14 days in response to the first Covid-19 case

Health officials contacted the school and the principal, staff and parents of pupils of this school were notified. All pupils and teachers were asked to restrict their movements until the end of the 14-day incubation period.

Officials said that they would receive guidance on the meaning of “restricted movements”.

3 March

It was on Tuesday 3 March that the second case of Covid-19 was confirmed

Dr Holohan said more isolated cases are expected to be imported into Ireland, but that there is “no evidence of local transmission here”.

At a briefing that day, Holohan also said he saw no reason why, as things stood at that stage, the St Patrick’s Festival shouldn’t go ahead.

4 March

Another four cases were confirmed on the Wednesday, with Dr Holohan confirming that Ireland had its first cluster. Another two cases were also confirmed in Northern Ireland.

5 March

More cases were announced today. Companies such as Google and Penneys (their head office staff) were being told to start working from home this week. 

In a statement, the Taoiseach said workers “should receive income support” if they have to self-isolate. HSE chief Paul Reid said the matter of disinformation online would be raised with the social media giants. 

Reid also said its procurement team was aiming to increase the sourcing of health supplies in a “volatile market”, and funding was also provided to increase ICU bed capacity.

At this stage, Italy had 3,000 cases and just over 100 deaths as it ordered schools to close. 

6 March

By the Friday, the pace of new developments was quickening. Many hospitals began to banvisitors. Healthcare workers returning from high risk areas were told not to go to work.

Nursing homes also sought to ban visitors as restaurants began to report mass cancellations. 

Trinity College also closed a section of its campus following a confirmed case.

On the other hand, the government wasn’t yet banning mass gatherings with the Taoiseach saying that wasn’t the advice at this stage. No final decision had yet been made on the St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin.

7 March

At this stage, there were 19 cases in Ireland. A recruitment freeze on nurses and midwives was lifted by the HSE due to the threat of pressure being put on the health service because of the spread of Covid-19.

Reports also emerged of a number Irish people onboard a mammoth cruise ship off the California coast where 21 people have tested positive for the coronavirus. 

8 March

Cases were beginning to spread via community transmission by this time. 

After a report in the Business Post, HSE CEO Paul Reid said he “can’t dispute” figures that suggested 1.9 million people in Ireland could contract Covid-19. 

9 March

The situation began to escalate even more quickly from Monday 9 March.

After almost two weeks of speculation, all St Patrick’s Day parades across the country were cancelled

In a precursor to the more substantial pandemic unemployment payment and wage subsidy scheme, the government announced a package of reforms for sick pay, illness benefit and supplementary benefit designed to ensure employees and the self-employed can follow medical advice to self-isolate while having their income protected.

The HSE was also scaling up its preparedness with €435 million in funding allocated to respond to Covid-19.

10 March

The number of cases was rising – now it had passed 30 – with an increasing amount coming from the spread of the virus in the community. 

At this stage, the Department of Education was still saying that it wouldn’t be ordering primary and secondary schools to close. 

The Department of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, took a major step in issuing a “do not travel” advisory for Italy – the highest level of warning. 

It put Italy in the same category as countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.

Both Aer Lingus and Ryanair announced the full suspension of their flight schedules both into and out of Italy as that country introduced a series of strict measures limiting people’s movement. 

The banks were also beginning to respond to the crisis, with Ulster Bank releasing details of a range of measures aimed at supporting personal and business banking customers whose financial situation has been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.

The Taoiseach had been due to arrive in New York that day as part of his St Patrick’s Day US trip but cut it short to go straight to Washington the following day. 

Also in Washington that day, US President Donald Trump told the American people “it will go away, just stay calm”. 

11 March

The first recorded death related to Covid-19 was confirmed on Wednesday 11 March.

A further nine cases brought the number of confirmed cases to 43. 

Dr Holohan said: “We continue our efforts to interrupt the transmission of the virus. It will take all of us, collectively to succeed. Please continue to follow public health advice.”

The signs that something major could be forthcoming soon were beginning to manifest, with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe warning that Ireland would need an “unprecedented shared national effort” to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak.

HSE chief Paul Reid, meanwhile, tweeted that “we are entering a new phase in Covid-19″. 

Several conferences, festivals and events looked set to be cancelled, but it was on this day that Electric Picnic promoters announced the now-cancelled festival’s line-up

Tánaiste Simon Coveney also updated travel advice for Spain, advising against all on-essential travel to three regions, including the capital Madrid. Trinity College warned it could lose out on €3 million after deciding to close the Book of Kells exhibition

The spread of Covid-19 was declared a pandemic on this day, by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

12 March

It was 11.29am Irish time when the Taoiseach told the Irish public that schools, colleges and childcare facilities would shut until 29 March

Varadkar said there would be more cases and more people would get sick and “unfortunately we must face the tragic reality that some people will die”.

He said we have “not witnessed a pandemic of this nature in living history and we are in uncharted territory”, and “several important and unprecedented measures to protect public health” had been taken.

He said people could continue to work but should work from home where possible. Shops would also remain open at this time and public transport would continue to operate. 

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“I know that some of this is coming as a real shock,” Varadkar said. “And it’s going to involve big changes in the way we live our lives. And I know that I’m asking people to make enormous sacrifices.”

Speaking at a press conference afterwards at Government Buildings, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said that “never before has such drastic action” been taken in the face of a public health threat. 

Supermarkets reported extremely high demand as people emptied the shelves as they bought in bulk. Long queues formed as people sought to get supplies, despite calls from government and the supermarkets themselves not to panic buy

What came after

The events of 12 March were a watershed. From this date, the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 began to rise sharply.

The pubs shut their doors that weekend and haven’t opened since. Tens of thousands were being put out of work due to the restrictions. 

On 16 March, the government established the pandemic unemployment payment at an initial rate of €203 a week. This later rose to €350. By the end of March, almost 400,000 people had applied for the payment. 

In his next major speech, on St Patrick’s Day, the Taoiseach warned that the emergency could likely go beyond 29 March and extend into the summer.

“Many of you want to know when this will be over,” he said. “The truth is we don’t know yet.”

As the cases continued to rise, we moved to more strict lockdown measures. 

On 24 March, the government announced all non-essential shops were to close.

All theatres, clubs, gyms, leisure centres, hairdressers, betting shops, marts, markets, casinos, bingo halls, libraries and similar outlets were to close. 

All sporting events were cancelled, including those behind closed doors. All playgrounds and holiday/caravan parks closed.

Then, on 27 March, the Taoiseach told everyone in Ireland to stay at home with only specific listed exemptions

“I’m asking people to give meaning to our freedom and liberty by agreeing to these restrictions, restricting how we live our lives, so that others may live,” he said.

Minister for Health Simon Harris had remarked earlier that the measures would seem “surreal” to people.

On that day in March, there were 302 new cases of Covid-19 confirmed. Today there were 13.

A total of 1,705 people have now died from Covid-19 in Ireland and there has been a total of 25,250 cases here. 

As the country moves through the phases to re-open the country, the hope going forward is that we won’t see such surreal scenes again. 

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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