By Neil Michael, Aoife Moore, and Conall Ó Fátharta
Thousands of Irish people are battling to get home amidst the biggest shutdown in global aviation since “the dawn of commercial flight” due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It comes as the death of two more people from coronavirus in Ireland were confirmed last night.
The deaths have been identified as a man and woman in the east of the country. It is understood the woman had an underlying health condition.
There have now been nine deaths related to Covid-19, with 235 newly confirmed cases yesterday, bringing the total to 1,564.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said his department was working on solutions with airlines and governments in the impacted areas to get around 2,000 Irish people home from some 86 countries.
However, he said the matter was “complex, challenging, and takes time” but said that it was being worked on “around the clock”.
He said this is because the world is witnessing what the Department of Foreign Affairs has described as “the biggest shutdown in global aviation since the dawn of commercial flight”.
Officials say they are doing all they can to get Irish people home, but they admit the situation is worse than anything they have ever experienced.
“We have never seen anything like it before,” they said.
“It eclipses the shutdowns following the September 11 attacks and the volcanic ash crisis. The situation is fast-moving and volatile.
“This has led to people who had confirmed and booked flights having them cancelled suddenly or being refused at airports.”
Among those trying to get home are around 130 trapped in Peru, which is under military lockdown, with people facing arrest and detention if seen out and about.
Last night reports emerged that two tourists had tested positive for corona-virus in a hostel in Cusco in Peru — a city where around 35 Irish citizens are currently trapped.
The infected tourists are understood to be Finnish and Dutch. It is unclear if any Irish people are staying in the hostel.
However, all of its occupants may now be quarantined for up to three months and be unable to fly home.
There are also hundreds of Irish people trying to get home from Australia, including more than 65 medics who want to return home to help with the battle to fight Covid-19 here.
There are also over 100 Irish tourists currently in New Zealand.
About 250 Irish citizens are due to arrive in Dublin from Rome on a special Alitalia flight into the capital, one of two being sent to help take out 500 Italians in Ireland who want to go home.
Last night, the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) also moved to assure its members that their pension and death-in-service entitlements will not be impacted if a member dies as a result of contracting Covid-19.
GPs had raised concerns after receiving correspondence from the General Medical Services Superannuation Plan.
Ireland’s numbers of cases and deaths continue to be less than previously predicted by medical experts.
However, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said it is too early to say why that is.
“Over a week or so we predicted 350 or so cases by day, we haven’t seen that.
Dublin has the highest number of cases at 559, followed by Cork at 133.
The Department of Health says that contact tracing for patients is now down to about five contacts per case, which indicates that social distancing is working.
The news of the deaths comes as the Department of Health changed the criteria on who will be tested.
Patients must now show two symptoms, be from vulnerable groups, or a healthcare worker.
Dr Holohan said the fact that only 6% of tests were returning as positive sparked the change in the criteria.
“Changing case definition is a standard practice in managing pandemics,” he said.
President Michael D Higgins has said that the coronavirus crisis will change Ireland as a nation and may result in a fairer society that places people at the heart of the economy.
He said that, despite this being an “awful time” for the country, that “great things are happening” and “at the end we could come out a better people”.