Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has suggested mandatory mask-wearing could be reintroduced on public transport and in shops as Ireland grapples with a summer wave of Covid-19.
While the return of public health restrictions is not under consideration by public health officials, Mr Donnelly notably did not rule out the reimposition of the mask mandate which was dropped at the end of February.
“Is it possible that I could get a recommendation for public transport or for retail [that], yes, we do recommend now that we move to mandatory mask-wearing for a short period of time? You couldn’t rule that out,” Mr Donnelly told the Sunday Independent this weekend. “It’s not where we’re at, but you can never say never.”
The legal requirement to wear masks on public transport, in taxis, shops, schools and other indoor public areas expired on February 28, but it is still advised that masks be worn on public transport and in healthcare settings.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has since called for mandatory mask-wearing to be reintroduced in crowded areas and on public transport.
Senior Department of Health and HSE officials are growing increasingly concerned about the rise in Covid-19 cases over recent weeks and its potential to affect the delivery of other health services over the summer months.
“Once you start getting close to say 1,300,1,400, 1,500 Covid cases in hospital, the HSE has to start looking at curtailing elective care and that has a very serious impact on waiting lists,” one health source said.
“People who have been waiting a long time for an operation have it cancelled.”
The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 has more than doubled since the start of June, with one leading immunologist suggesting yesterday that daily case numbers could be between 8,000 and 10,000.
Professor of immunology at Dublin City University Christine Loscher said a restricted PCR testing system, which is confined to people over the age of 55, made it difficult to know how many Covid cases are actually in the country.
“It’s certainly much higher in the last few weeks than it has been. We’re certainly experiencing an uptick in cases like we’ve seen in other European countries,” the DCU professor told RTÉ Radio 1.
Meanwhile, the Sunday Independent today reveals details of further tensions between Mr Donnelly and outgoing chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan over the role of a new Covid-19 Advisory Group, which has met just once since it was formed at the start of April.
In text messages obtained by this newspaper, Dr Holohan insisted to the minister that his office remained “in a position to give good advice on the disease” in response to the minister’s text seeking the urgent establishment of the new group.
The outgoing CMO also told Department of Health secretary-general Robert Watt that the opportunities arising from a new EU health emergency agency were bigger than Mr Donnelly realised.