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The Chief Medical Officer on why the government is taking 'unprecedented' coronavirus measures now

Health Minister Simon Harris said that it was based on crucial advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team last night.

Image: Sam Boal

CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER Tony Holohan has said that Ireland is taking these measures now based on new information on cases in Ireland, and new advice issued from the European authority on health and disease.

This morning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar orders schools, colleges and childcare facilities from 6pm this evening to close to prevent spread of coronavirus, an “unprecedented” and “drastic” move to attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The government is also advising against indoor gatherings of over 100 people and against outdoor gatherings of over 500 people. 

Explaining the decision for making this call now, Holohan said:

Yesterday evening we came into possession, after that press conference yesterday evening, of new information in terms of cases from the National Virus Reference Laboratory, we considered that last night and in the light of that information, we provided this guidance.

Holohan wouldn’t clarify what these figures were, but said that it would be announced at this evening’s Department of Health briefing on new cases in Ireland.

He said that a number of clusters had been identified, pointing to community transmission, which is when cases appear without an obvious link to travel to an affected area, or a confirmed case in Ireland.

He clarified that when the virus spreads outside contact with confirmed cases, or not associated with travel, its “a strong signal that social distancing measures should be considered”. 

Leo Varadkar also sent the following tweets explaining the decision:

“Yesterday, the World Health Organisation formally described it as pandemic and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control updated it guidelines advising us all to act early to be effective. Our own National Public Health Emergency Team met last night.”

They issued new advice to Government. We are acting on that advice today. There will be many more cases. More people will get sick and unfortunately, we must face the tragic reality that some people will die. The virus will continue to spread but it can be slowed

The letter to Health Minister Simon Harris

Health Minister Simon Harris said that he had received advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) which “came by a letter” last night.

The letter recommends that Ireland move to the delay phase based on “a significant increase” in recent days in cases detected, a number of ICU hospitalisations, a death, “a number of clusters of infection” including two hospitals, and reports of community transmission. 

 The letter also references updated advice by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which advised that ”social distancing aims, through a variety of means, [would] minimise contact between individuals and thereby to reduce the possibility for new infections”.

The ECDC also advised:

The early, decisive, rapid, coordinated and comprehensive implementation of closures and quarantines is likely to be more effective in slowing the spread of the virus than a delayed implementation.

As a result of the advice and new cases, the NPHET recommends the closure of schools, creces, universities, museums, galleries, and tourism sites.

It says that “there should be no mass gatherings” involving more than 100 people indoors, or more than 500 people outdoors.

Workplaces are advised to ask people to work from home where possible, and to stagger work times and breaks.

The elderly and the medically vulnerable are being asked to limit social interactions where possible; hospitals care centres, and prisons are being asked to restrict visits; and homeless shelters are being asked to take “spacing measures”.

All these measures are to be implemented until Sunday 29 March. Measures and advice on travel are to be announced at the meeting tonight.


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Earlier comments from Simon Harris and Simon Coveney

Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Health Minister Simon Harris spoke about the seriousness of the measures that they were asking the public, businesses and cultural organisations to comply with.

“Never before has such drastic action been taken at a public health threat”, Simon Coveney said, adding that it was based on “sound and considered advice of foremost public health experts”. 

He said that the Irish government was asking people to “to pull together”, by “asking people to stay apart. The closure of our schools will disrupt everyday activity… which makes us who we are.”

The government cannot succeed on its own.
We are acting to protect the most vulnerable in society – those who are vulnerable are precious.

“These are the right measures at the right time,” Coveney said. “If we follow these steps, we will protect lives if people act together.”

There had been a suggestion on Tuesday that that schools would close, but the Department of Education issued a statement clarifying that there was no need to take such measures yet. 

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