Covid-19 curve 'flattened' says Taoiseach who nevertheless defends pace of exit from 'lockdown'

Conor Ganly

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Conor Ganly

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news@leinsterexpress.ie

coronavirus covid-19

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

Irish people have flattened the Covid-19 curve but the stakes are too high to rush lifting of the lockdown because to do so risks lives and could cause the reimposition of restrictions, according to the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Speaking in the Dáil Mr Varadkar said sacrifices have led to results.

"Due to the decisions, choices and sacrifices of the Irish people, the curve has been flattened. It has plateaued, but our grief has not. We now have a road map for how we will bring our country to a new normal. The stakes are too high to rush things now; otherwise, we risk everything we have achieved.

"The willingness of people in every village, town and city to follow the public health advice has changed the future. It has meant that our hospitals have been able to cope and our healthcare staff have not been overwhelmed. This success, however, has brought a different challenge, and we need now to work out how we can manage separately Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 care for a prolonged period. This will not be easy," he said.

The Taoiseach defended that roadmap.

"I know we have faced some criticism that our plan to reopen the country is at a slower pace than those of other countries. It is true that it is slower - slower than those of countries much less affected than us, such as Australia and New Zealand, and slower than those of countries much worse affected than us, such as Spain and Belgium.

"This is a decision the Government made on foot of advice from NPHET and it is one we stand over. I would rather have a plan that we accelerate if things go well than one that we might have to pause, draw out or go back on if they do not. We are putting the lives of our people and their health first and we do not want to have to reimpose restrictions like some other countries have had to do. That would damage public morale and further dent economic confidence.

"We want to learn from the success and errors of other European countries reopening before us and it is encouraging to see the data from Germany which indicates that its reopening has not yet led to an increase in cases. I think ours is a prudent, precautionary and health-led approach," said the Taoiseach.

FULL TEXT OF SPEECH DELIVERED ON MAY 7.

A Cheann Comhairle, foremost in our minds are those who have lost loved ones because of Covid-19 and all who are suffering from its impact physically, emotionally or financially. As of last night, 143 people have died since we last met in this format last week.

I offer my condolences and those of the House to their families and friends.

Due to the decisions, choices and sacrifices of the Irish people, the curve has been flattened. It has plateaued, but our grief has not. We now have a road map for how we will bring our country to a new normal. The stakes are too high to rush things now; otherwise, we risk everything we have achieved. As we start to ease the restrictions, we must continue our commitment to the basic actions such as cleaning hands and physical distancing. We must try to find, isolate, test and care for every case and trace every contact. As we ease the restrictions personal discipline around physical distancing, handwashing and respiratory hygiene will become more important than ever.

As of yesterday, just under 215,000 tests have been carried out in Ireland. Over the past week, close to 62,000 tests were carried out and, of these, 2,280 were positive. That gives us a positivity rate of 3.7%, a rate which, thankfully, is continuing to trend downwards. Some 65,000 tests have been carried out in long-term care residential centres, including nursing homes, and 540 nursing homes, or 93% of the total, have been tested so far. This testing continues.

During the course of this Covid-19 emergency, nearly 3,000 people have been hospitalised, and 78% of those have made a full recovery. Some significant developments have taken place since this day last week. The HSE is increasing its testing capacity, which now stands at 12,000 tests every day. By mid-May, we aim to have capacity for 15,000 tests per day. The total number of tests now done, as I mentioned earlier, is 215,000. That is 43,000 tests per million population. Depending on how this is measured, we rank between third and seventh in the European Union of 27 and are now well ahead of countries that led the way in testing previously, such as Germany, South Korea and Singapore. We need, however, to focus also on turnaround times and rapid and aggressive tracing.

One of our focuses from the very start was to build surge capacity in our hospitals. We needed to ensure we had the maximum possible number of critical care and regular hospital beds so we could cope with the predicted number of Covid-19 cases requiring hospitalisation. We need to remember that the 3,000 people who have been hospitalised so far have come from all settings: some from their own homes, some from nursing homes and some from other forms of care home. They are young, middle-aged and older. The whole point of increasing critical care capacity and hospital capacity was that that is where the sickest will end up. To date, 3,000 people have been hospitalised with Covid-19. It is good that we have not run into issues with the availability of critical care beds or ventilators. It could have been very different.

The willingness of people in every village, town and city to follow the public health advice has changed the future. It has meant that our hospitals have been able to cope and our healthcare staff have not been overwhelmed. This success, however, has brought a different challenge, and we need now to work out how we can manage separately Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 care for a prolonged period. This will not be easy. It means we need to provide care and services in new ways, such as increased used of telemedicine, online clinics and hospital in the home while ensuring that patients are confident about the quality of their treatment and reassured about the safety of the care they receive.

For those feeling isolated, I know how easy it is to become anxious and lonely when they have to spend a considerable amount of time on their own, especially if they are sociable people by nature, but I ask them to remember that help is always available. I ask them to reach out to a friend or family member and contact Community Call. It is waiting to hear from them.

Last Friday we published our reopening plan. Since then, indicators are that the positivity rate is going in the right direction. ICU occupancy is now below 100 - in fact, falling towards 80 today - and we are increasingly confident, though it is not yet certain, that we can proceed with phase 1 on Monday, 18 May. Cabinet will make a final decision on that on Friday, 15 May, following advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. I know we have faced some criticism that our plan to reopen the country is at a slower pace than those of other countries. It is true that it is slower - slower than those of countries much less affected than us, such as Australia and New Zealand, and slower than those of countries much worse affected than us, such as Spain and Belgium.

This is a decision the Government made on foot of advice from NPHET and it is one we stand over. I would rather have a plan that we accelerate if things go well than one that we might have to pause, draw out or go back on if they do not. We are putting the lives of our people and their health first and we do not want to have to reimpose restrictions like some other countries have had to do. That would damage public morale and further dent economic confidence. We want to learn from the success and errors of other European countries reopening before us and it is encouraging to see the data from Germany which indicates that its reopening has not yet led to an increase in cases. I think ours is a prudent, precautionary and health-led approach.

The Government is keen to hear from sectors and businesses that think they can open more quickly and see their plans for how they will achieve physical distancing and what precautions they will put in place to mitigate the risk where they cannot. Our objective is to help the country get through this emergency, rebuild our economy, get people back to work and keep them safe while doing so. We are currently working with business, unions, the Health and Safety Authority and the HSE on the development of a return to work safety protocol to assist this.

According to our most recent figures, 598,000 people are receiving the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. This is on top of the 205,000 people on the live register, so a total of 803,000 people are now receiving some form of income protection from the State. As we know, we came back from the last economic crisis and achieved full employment. I believe that, with the right policies, we will do so again and the recovery will be quicker this time.

On Saturday, we announced an economic plan worth up to €6.5 billion to help businesses impacted by Covid-19 and minimise the economic damage done by the pandemic. Commercial rates will be written off for three months. A €2 billion credit guarantee scheme will be introduced for small and medium-sized enterprises and our sovereign wealth fund, the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund or ISIF, has been mandated to invest €2 billion directly into bigger firms. Maintaining the link between employers and employees will enable a quicker recovery and the wage subsidy scheme will help keep staff on the payroll.

There is also a €1 billion Covid-19 funding package to help businesses with cashflow and banks will also be able to dip into their rainy day capital reserves to keep lending flowing, freeing up €1 billion in bank capital to provide up to €13 billion in credit. Meanwhile, a suite of taxation measures will alleviate short-term liquidity difficulties.

I am keen to see a return to international air travel as soon as is feasible and safe. There is a lot of work to do but I am more optimistic than others that air travel for business and leisure will resume this year. Currently, there is important work being done by the European Commission and various aviation safety agencies and I hope to give an update to the Dáil on this matter in the weeks to come.

We are still learning about this virus. It is noteworthy that initial reports suggest, from retrospective testing, that the virus was circulating in France as far back as December last year. That is before the virus even had a name or a test for it. In some ways, this is not surprising. France is well connected to China, with dozens of flights every day, and Ireland is well connected to France. It is very possible that this virus was already in Ireland last year or in January this year, and we should not assume that it came here from Italy in late February just because the first confirmed case did. Further research and retrospective testing will give us a better idea of that and time will tell.

The coronavirus is the shared enemy of all humanity and all governments. I believe the only way we can defeat a global threat is by working together on a multilateral basis. Working together, we can develop an effective vaccine, treatment and testing systems. Ireland has contributed €60 million in direct or repurposed grants to the United Nations and has quadrupled its contribution to the World Health Organization. On Monday, on behalf of the Irish people, I pledged €18 million to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, so that the poorest and least developed countries in the world will have access to the vaccine if and when it is developed. We are providing about €10 million over three years for immunology research.

The Department of Health is also supporting the WHO solidarity study which is comparing four treatment options, including remdesivir, which is available to Irish patients under certain circumstances. By recruiting patients in several countries, and shortly here too, the trial aims to rapidly assess the impact of these treatments in slowing the disease or improving outcomes.

As always, I look forward to hearing comments and observations from Members.

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