Wednesday’s cabinet meeting heard that senior officials expect hundreds of Irish cases of coronavirus before the Dáil reconvenes in two weeks time. Ministers were briefed about the possible closure of schools and colleges, the cancellation of cultural and sport events and t constraints business may have to accept if we are to do all we can, all we must, to try to limit the spread of the infection.
Since that meeting, just three days ago, events have moved quickly. The sense of possibility that informed that discussion has moved towards probability — any lingering sense of optimism, of over-confidence must be replaced by sharpened sense of caution for individuals and for communities.
That meeting could not have anticipated that more than 60 staff at Cork University Hospital (CUH) would, within hours of their meeting, be asked to self-isolate. This move, one that must have an impact of CUH’s capacity to deliver care, came after a case was discovered at the hospital. More worryingly, that case came about through community transmission and its immediate source remains a mystery.
CUH is not the only hospital facing an immediate challenge. University Hospital Limerick was closed for three hours on Wednesday after it was established that a healthcare professional who was one of four cases reported on Wednesday had worked a shift at the hospital. The CUH case is one of 13 confirmed in the Republic and that number will grow and grow in the immediate future.
That likelihood was recognised by Nursing Homes Ireland yesterday when visiting restrictions were announced. Non-essential visiting, children or groups will not be be allowed in nursing homes where the age profile of residents makes them particularly vulnerable. That clear thinking stands in contrast to the anticipated weekend arrival of some Italian rugby fans for the cancelled rugby international. They may not be overawed by the welcome they receive. The very same principle applies to those who choose to travel to the Cheltenham racing festival next week.
It may, at this moment, seem farfetched to suggest that those arriving from a country where the virus is active should face a mandatory period of isolation, say two weeks, but should the worst come to pass we will regret being as lax as we are today. The same principle applies to St Patrick’s Day. At a moment when so much is uncertain, it is wrong to pretend those celebrations to do not carry unacceptable risk — especially as most sensible people will want to avoid crowds and stay away.
As events accelerate a level-headed approach is more and more important. It is vital that those who contact the virus are not stigmatised. It is also vital that it is normalised so the efficiency of any response is maximised. Controlling the narrative, winnowing Dr Internet’s exaggerations from reality, is also necessary. HSE information programmes have a huge role to play in this. In that context it is best to rely on official, state-managed sites or media that has, over decades, shown itself to be reliable.
Coronavirus is not yet a crisis and it will not become one if we act responsibly and selflessly. There is so much at stake that any other response would be a betrayal of community.