Become a ‘zero Covid island’ or ‘sleepwalk’ to major surge, experts say

ireland
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Sarah Mooney
The Republic is “sleep-walking towards a major surge of infections” according to the Zero Covid Island group who have revealed their plan presented yesterday to the Oireachtas special committee on Covid-19.

The group of scientists and academics from universities across Ireland are advocating for the elimination of Covid-19 on the island, in place of the current Government policy of “living with the virus”.

The group has estimated the country “can bring Covid-19 to zero cases per day in between four and six weeks, and then begin a cautious return to normal life," with improved controls over high-density housing, the meat industry, large events and "other major sources of outbreaks".

Without a fundamental change in the current strategy of attempting to live with the virus, we are sleep-walking towards a major surge of infections in October - November.

The group is calling for an approach similar to that taken in New Zealand, with the goal of “returning life, and the economy, back to nearly normal” and allowing a safe return to work and school.

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Group member Professor Ivan Perry, Dean of Public Health at UCC, says that “without a fundamental change in the current strategy of attempting to live with the virus, we are sleep-walking towards a major surge of infections in October - November.”

In the document presented to the committee, the group has laid out its proposals for the Republic to achieve a policy of Covid-19 elimination:

  • Hand hygiene and cough etiquette – with regular hand washing.
  • More consistent social distancing.
  • Widespread use of masks, especially indoors.
  • More active case finding, testing, tracing and better support for isolation.
  • No non-essential travel into “green zone” areas where there is no circulation of Covid-19 among residents.
  • No non-essential foreign travel, and testing, isolation, and tracking the movements of incoming people at ports and airports.

The Zero Covid Island group says that the responsibility for deciding what comprises “essential travel” should lie with the individual, and that people will also need to take a sensible approach to short distance travel in border areas, whether between counties, or between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

It says the idea of restricting non-essential travel into – but not through – “green zones,” areas such as counties where there is no circulation of Covid-19 among residents, would see zones merge quickly and the area of freedom become bigger.

According to the group, much of rural Ireland could become a “green zone” very quickly, while big cities would take longer.

Criticism

In the document presented to the Oireachtas committee, the group challenges common objections to its “zero-Covid” plan, including allegations it would “crush the economy”.

It says the virus is “crushing the economy” nonetheless, as the experience of Sweden and the United States shows, and “the faster the virus goes down, the faster the economy can begin to recover.”

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“People are worried now, because they see no end coming. If we give them a destination, Zero Covid in six weeks, and give them responsibility, we are confident that the Irish people will support this.”

People are worried now, because they see no end coming. If we give them a destination, Zero Covid in six weeks, and give them responsibility, we are confident that the Irish people will support this.

Amid concerns the “zero-Covid” plan could affect the reopening of schools, the group says opening schools remains its “highest priority” and that “the fastest way to open, and keep schools open elsewhere is to go to eliminate Covid."

Northern Ireland

It comes as the Oireachtas Committee heard a "zero-Covid" policy was not possible due to political differences between the two administrations on the island of Ireland, from chief economist at the Institute of International and European Affairs Dan O’Brien.

However, the Zero Covid Island group says it is not advocating for the closure of the Northern Irish Border, but rather “close working” with its government to benefit both jurisdictions.

“There is a century-long tradition of close co-operation, formal and informal, on both animal and human health across the border, which continues,” it says.

A reasonable testing and isolation regime at ports and airports can control this.

“Most people outside the UK coming to the island of Ireland, come in through Dublin. Of those who come through Belfast, most are from other parts of the UK. This poses some risk to both jurisdictions, but public health is well placed to manage these risks.”

“A reasonable testing and isolation regime at ports and airports can control this.”

The group's plan comes amid a new outbreak of the virus in Auckland, New Zealand, following over 100 days with no new cases in the country.

The group says although it is likely more cases will happen, “the important message is not that these outbreaks occurred, but that they were contained with local measures,” with the same local management possible in Ireland.

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