Michael Staines
Michael Staines

13.10 28 Feb 2020


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The Minister for Health has warned that COVID-19 is likely to be around “for quite a period of time.”

On The Pat Kenny Show, Simon Harris said the public response to the coronavirus outbreak has to be “proportionate” as we could be living with the consequences for months or years to come.

More than 83,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in nearly 50 countries around the world – with close to 3,000 deaths reported.

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While there are only small numbers of cases in many European countries there are several clusters in different areas – including in Northern Italy where over 650 cases and 17 deaths have been reported.

Minister Harris said we could see similar clusters elsewhere in the coming weeks.

“What we have seen in the last number of days, particularly with Northern Italy, is clusters of cases developing in European countries and the view of the European Centre for Disease Control now is that that is likely to replicate in a number of countries, including possibly Ireland,” he said.

Officials have noted that four out of five patients diagnosed with the virus only experience mild symptoms with the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions most at risk.

COVID-19 Coronavirus HSE officials at a COVID-19 information stand at Dublin Airport, 28-02-2020. Image: Josh Crosbie/Newstalk

Minister Harris said every decision taken in response to the outbreak is “on the basis of medical advice from our public health experts.”

“The people calling the shots here are our best and brightest in terms of public health – that is going to be the way,” he said.

“We do have to be proportionate here. This is something that could stay with us as a European Union and a country for quite a period of time so it is important we follow the evidence.”

Coronavirus COVID-19 Outbreak In Italy Tourists at the Spanish Steps in Rome amid the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, 25-02-2020. Image: IPA/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

He said the Government had not grounded flights from Italy – despite calling for Ireland Six Nations Rugby match with Italians to be cancelled – because the WHO and the European Commission have not issued a travel ban.

“Let’s just pretend we did decide in Ireland to ban flights in Italy,” he said. “There is no proposal to do it; no evidence to do it.”

“How would you know that a flight from Paris would not end up bringing people from Italy?

“So this is a fast-evolving situation. There is free movement of people and the responses do have to be proportionate or you could end up with a bizarre situation where nearly all travel actually ceases across the world.”

He said it is “too early to say” what will happen with the upcoming St Patrick’s Day celebrations – but insisted “public health will trump everything” when it comes to taking decisions about any event.

“We have not made any decision at all to curtail or cancel St Patrick’s Day,” he said.

“In the next few days, we will be publishing updated guidelines based on World Health Organisation recommendations for organisers to consider.

“We will be inviting organisers of lots of different events to come into the Department and talk to us and make the responsible decision.

“It is too early to say is the truth.”

The HSE has issued clear advice for anyone who has been to an area affected by the coronavirus or in contact with a confirmed case of the virus.

The Department of Health says it has contacted everyone who was in close contact with the first person to be diagnosed with COVID-19 in Ireland.

The woman tested positive in Belfast yesterday after travelling home to Ireland from Italy via Dublin Airport.

Minister Harris said the “first port-of-call” for anyone who has concerns about themselves or their family is their GP.

“If your child or indeed you have any symptoms of a virus, please don’t go to the GP surgery, please phone.

“And the HSE website has some really excellent information on symptoms, things to watch out for and indeed a helpline if you are concerned.

The HSE is urging anyone who has been to one of seven coronavirus-affected areas in the past two weeks and is experiencing symptoms of coronavirus to phone their local GP or Emergency Department without delay.

You should also self-isolate and avoid contact with other people.

The symptoms are a cough, shortness of breath, breathing difficulties and fever (high temperature).

The affected areas are:

  • China
  • Hong Kong
  • Iran
  • Japan
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • The Italian provinces of Lombardy, Piemonte, Veneto and Emilia – Romagna

The HSE said you should follow this advice even if your symptoms are mild.

If you are feeling well you should carry on with your normal routine and follow the advice on how to protect yourself from the virus.

You should also avoid spending time with people who are ill with a cough, high temperature, or breathing problems.

While there have been cases of the virus at a hotel in Tenerife, the island is not considered an affected area.


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