It is “too early” to say if Covid-19 is stabilising in Dublin and if further restrictions can be applied to cities or local areas rather than whole counties, the final meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Covid-19 has heard.
While “optimistic” that infection rates are stabilising in Dublin, Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said “significant improvements” are needed before restrictions can be eased.
“At best, it’s beginning to stabilise but we do need a few more days of data to confirm that trend,” Dr Glynn said, adding that the only Covid metric of importance is for everyone to reduce their contacts.
“These are really hard choices but we need the vast majority of people across the capital to make those hard choices if we’re going to turn this around. It is simply too early to say at this point if it is turning around,” he added.
Covid-19 positivity rates are less than 3% nationally but over 5% in some counties such as Dublin, Donegal and Monaghan, the meeting heard.
Dr Glynn and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly also signalled that more localised restrictions may not be on the cards for other counties at risk of moving to Level 3 restrictions, including Cork, Galway, and Louth, following concerns by a number of TDs over possible county-wide lockdowns where Covid-19 was concentrated in urban or local areas.
“People don’t live, work, socialise, play, interact with people within their village, town or city. People move about, to a large extent they move about within their county on a very regular basis,” Dr Glynn said.
“Of course when it comes to Cork or any other county we will look at the specifics and see whether a more nuanced approach is appropriate,” he said, adding that speculation on city-wide restrictions had not come from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).
Mr Donnelly said there is “no right answer” to the question of localising restrictions: “The evidence we have from the work of Kildare, Laois and Offaly and the efforts those communities made do show that the county by county approach, while it can be very frustrating, has worked.”
Asked about what young people could do to socialise, the Acting CMO also said: “The social opportunities are there now but have to be done differently, they have to be done more safely.”
He and Professor Philip Nolan, Chair of the NPHET Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, also stressed the dangers of allowing the virus to continue spreading.
“I want to be very clear, if we see a sustained increase in cases, in particular among those who are vulnerable, we will see more deaths in this country,” Dr Glynn said.
“It would be very dangerous to underestimate the capacity of this virus to kill people when it infects them,” Professor Nolan added.
At the meeting Mr Donnelly confirmed that public health staff will double to 500 and progress is being made to recognise public health doctors as medical consultants.
“Pre-Covid we had 254 people working full-time in our public health departments. We are going to double that number. In the next two weeks the HSE will begin a recruitment campaign for 255 staff including public health doctors, nurses, scientists and support staff,” Mr Donnelly said, adding that Cabinet had approved legislation this week to create consultant posts for public health doctors, which he would progress with unions.
The Minister also announced an additional €30 million in funding to support nursing homes over the winter period and said he would look at waiving fees to families of those who died in nursing homes and are seeking information under the Freedom of Information Act.
“There can be no impediment to information,” the Minister said.
On aviation, Mr Donnelly said the country would follow EU proposals for a traffic light system of green, orange, and red travel zones and that NPHET had advised against testing at airports as it would not be the highest priority for using testing capacity.
Professor Nolan said the proposed EU travel scheme is a “plausible way forward” as random and voluntary testing at airports could miss too many cases.
Several members questioned why rapid antigen tests are not being used and were advised that the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) is expected to report on its findings on other possible tests next week.
Following calls for greater transparency, Dr Glynn said there is “acres of data” available as well as letters, advice, and minutes of meetings and transparency is not the “fundamental impediment” to controlling the disease in the months ahead.