It is not inevitable that coronavirus cases will rise again over the Christmas season, according to an infectious disease specialist.
The Government last night announced its plan for exiting Level Five restrictions – with shops, hairdressers, gyms and cinemas among the services reopening on Tuesday.
Restaurants and gastropubs will follow on Friday December 4th, with restrictions on house visits and intercounty travel to be eased on December 18th.
Announcing the plan, the Taoiseach warned that “every contact counts” and urged people to take personal responsibility for keeping the virus in check over Christmas.
On Newstalk Breakfast with Sean Defoe this morning, infectious disease specialist Dr Sam McConkey said he has mixed feelings about the plan.
“The best metaphor is, it is a bit like cycling on a bicycle when you have poor breaks,” he said. “We’re not quite sure whether we can stop this.”
He said it is not inevitable that cases will rise over Christmas – and said the Government must now double down on testing and tracing to keep things in check.
“There is this magic number where, once you get the numbers down low enough, then with a really big strengthening of population health and public health activities you can actually stop it rising and we can get back to normal socialising activity – because we have controlled community spread of COVID,” he said.
“That is the vision. That is the light I would see; the hope we want to get to is controlling community spread low enough so we can go and visit our grandmothers and mothers in a very comfortable, relaxed way.
"But we are not there yet and with 200 cases a day, it is hard to get to there. So hopefully the numbers will come down more over the next week or two and we can gradually get there.
"So, I would put out that hope that it is not inevitable that cases rise as we socialise.”
He noted that some counties have already got their figures low enough to allow for relatively safe socialising – with Leitrim now having recorded no cases in seven days.
Public health strategy
Professor McConkey said the Government take the opportunity to build a “really robust, strong population level public health screening system.”
“Because the cases are fewer now, that gives us a better chance to focus testing on the immediate vicinity of the people who have COVID,” he said.
“Their friends, neighbours, contacts – not just for 48 hours but back for a week or two. Find out who else in that locality has COVID using combinations of serological blood tests, antigen tests, PCR tests and obviously symptoms.
“Maybe pop-up testing centres. We did have ambulance staff doing pop-up testing and going to people’s houses for testing. What about setting up tents on a street where an outbreak is and saying anyone who wants testing can come and have it done on the same day?
“Those are possible and feasible over the next few weeks.”
He said celebrating Christmas safely is all about following basic public health guidelines and isolating if you are feeling unwell.
“We should not have sick people joining these socialising groups or even a Christmas dinner,” he said.
“If someone has a runny nose, headache, loss of sense of smell, fever, flu-like symptoms, they really are better off keeping to themselves and self-isolating – and calling their GP and getting a test done so it is really clear what they’ve got rather than just leaving it for a few days.
“We are now able to test 8,000 or 10,000 people a day without any problem so using those facilities widely during the holiday period will be good.”
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