'Public debate' needed about which COVID-19 restrictions to relax first

An infectious diseases expert says there should be a "big public debate" on what coronavirus rest...
Jack Quann
Jack Quann

11.39 24 May 2020

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'Public debate' needed about w...

'Public debate' needed about which COVID-19 restrictions to relax first

Jack Quann
Jack Quann

11.39 24 May 2020

Share this article

An infectious diseases expert says there should be a "big public debate" on what coronavirus restrictions to relax first.

Professor Sam McConkey is head of the department of International Health and Tropical Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI).

He was speaking after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said there is no change to the social distancing restrictions for COVID-19.


It is understood 'robust' discussions were held at Cabinet on Friday about changing the advice from two metres to one to help the hospitality sector.

Current World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines state keeping a one metre distance from each other is sufficient.

However guidance from the Health Service Executive (HSE) say a space of two metres (6.5 feet) should be kept between people.

But on Saturday Mr Varadkar confirmed that there is no change to the advice to maintain a physical distance of two metres.

Prof McConkey told On The Record: "In Ireland we've largely followed the European Centre for Disease Control, which is in Stockholm, which is a pan-European scientific advisory group.

"My view is that following their advice has been very wise and very sensible."

The ECDC is an advisory group for the EU, whereas the WHO is a world-wide organisation.

"I think this debate is a really good one to be having.

"The issue is as we're now gradually controlling the spread of COVID-19 in Ireland, much better than we were four or six weeks ago, the reproductive rate has decreased dramatically and we're seeing fewer cases each day.

"We now have to have a big public debate about which restrictions we start to relax first."

He said some of those options could include the re-opening of creches and schools, the re-opening of tourism and travel or a relaxing of physical distancing.

"My point is you shouldn't do all three together - we should do these gradually and in a step-wise way.

"And we have to make really important, informed political choices about which parts of our society we should try and get back to normal first.

"Certainly getting physically closer to each other certainly would allow restaurants and bars and so on to function better, and we'd all probably have a better time.

"That would inevitably lead to more transmission of COVID-19... the way droplets and things work often it's not just a simple linear relationship.

"When you're one metre rather than two [apart], it could be up to four-times more transmission that takes place when you're closer."

"That is one political choice, Gavan, that we could make as a nation and say 'yes, we're going to get one metre from each other'.

"But then that would possibly mean that things like getting schools back or getting the airports open and tourists coming again might wait longer.

"You can imagine how different sectors of our economy have vested interests in different of those choices that I've just outlined".

He said the WHO advice for one metre distance is "accepting that there will be some transmission of virus."

"As long as we keep the transmission rate - as long as each cases produces less than one additional case - then our pandemic will gradually continue to fizzle out.

"But if that famous R number goes over one, and we're seeing a rise in cases each day, then our epidemic is becoming out of control".

On the wearing of face masks recommended on public transport and in shops, he does not think this should be mandatory.

"My view is that a recommendation is the way to go".

"I wouldn't advocate mandatory  - I think that risks provoking a sort of a backlash of people who feel this is an infringement on the way they dress or whatever.

"I think that might not be an acceptable measure that's going to improve things - I think it might make things worse".

Main image: Empty streets in Dublin city centre. Picture by: Sam Boal/

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