School closures a ‘last resort’ as Ireland moves to Level 5 lockdown at midnight

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Digital Desk staff

Updated: 8.45am. Additional reporting by Vivienne Clarke.

Health officials have defended the decision to keep schools open around the country ahead of Ireland’s move to a Level 5 lockdown at midnight tonight.

The Level 5 restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19 mean people will not be permitted to travel more than five kilometres from their home for non-essential purposes, with fines for breaches to be introduced in the coming weeks.

All non-essential retail, hairdressers and barbers must close, while pubs, cafes and restaurants can offer takeaway services only.

Health officials have defended the decision to keep schools and childcare settings open while the rest of the country prepares to enter lockdown, saying their closure would be a “last resort”.

“The Irish experience to date, it reflects the current international position that schools are not key drivers of Covid-19 in the community and that schools are not high-risk environments for Covid,” deputy chief medical officer Heather Burns said.

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“The World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control have recently stated their position that broad school closures should be an absolute last resort,” she added.

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Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said that reopening schools after the midterm break remained a key objective of public health officials: “The wellbeing and general health of children, as well as obviously their educational attainment, and we’ve identified that as a core objective to try to protect.

“We think it fits with the evidence we have internationally in terms of transmissions, and with what we’ve seen so far in terms of transmission data and gives us reassurance in that regard, but we will continue to monitor that situation.”

Level 5 impact

It comes as 13 further deaths and 1,269 new cases of the virus were confirmed yesterday evening.

Dr Holohan said it will be a number of weeks before the impact of the new Level 5 restrictions will be seen: “It won’t be a surprise to us to see continuing increase in the rates over the next week, 10 days at least.

“What we’d really be hoping to see is in week two or three of this, to begin to see effects of that turning around. There is a lag between what we see in terms of the cases presenting in their diagnosis and then the hospitalisation that results and then ultimately the mortality.”

There’s nothing inevitable about what happens after December.

Meanwhile Professor Philip Nolan, chair of Nphet's Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, has defended the group's modelling system and pointed out that it predicted what could happen if actions were not taken.

All models had some inaccuracies to some extent, he told Newstalk Breakfast. By offering their prediction which led to action, it meant that many deaths were prevented, he said.

When asked how quickly numbers could rise again when restrictions are lifted after six weeks, Prof Nolan said he hoped people would have learned from the lessons of the summer.

Back in May and June people had “dodged” each other, but that had relaxed. People would have to be very careful: “There’s nothing inevitable about what happens after December.”

The main thing was how people managed their social contacts. If numbers started to rise again then “we will need to be careful and to intervene early,” he warned.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that thousands of close contacts of positive Covid-19 cases will not be contacted by the HSE after the contact tracing system was overwhelmed by cases last weekend.

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