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Decision to impose Covid-19 lockdown taken by experts at 1am emergency meeting


Warning: Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan. Photo: Frank McGrath

Warning: Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan. Photo: Frank McGrath

Warning: Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan. Photo: Frank McGrath

The dramatic decision to order the closure of the country's schools and begin the virtual shutdown of the economy was taken at a 1am emergency meeting by the country's health experts, it has emerged.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan revealed for the first time the alarm which he and his officials felt on March 11 when it became clear cases of the coronavirus were going to escalate from a small handful to a doubling within 48 hours.

"We convened a meeting at 9pm. It concluded at 1am and the announcements were made the following morning by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar," he said.

He was speaking at his daily briefing yesterday, weeks after the unprecedented announcements, which saw the country hit by financial turmoil and ongoing curbs on personal freedoms.

However, the turnaround and success of the lockdown led to another fall in new cases to 51 yesterday, bringing the total to 24,251. There were another 16 deaths from the virus.

However, there remains concern about the level of infection in meat plants which has seen the number of workers testing positive jump by 328 in a week to 828.

The level of virus circulating is falling and over the past week, 36,818 tests were carried out and of these 932 were positive, giving a rate of 2.5pc.

Dr Cillian De Gascun, chair of the expert advisory group, said: "Despite broadening the case definition and increases in referrals, the positivity rate has continued to decline.

"This indicates a consistent suppression of Covid-19 in the community."

It will be well into next week before there are any indications if the easing of restrictions which began on Monday will push up the levels of infection again.

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Meanwhile, newly released correspondence reveals Dr Holohan warned Health Minister Simon Harris that airline passengers coming from Britain who want to dodge the State's 14-day quarantine rules could travel via Northern Ireland to the Republic, posing a public health risk.

In a strongly worded letter on May 12, he said there is a risk of "imported cases associated with non-essential travel from and through Great Britain to Ireland via Northern Ireland" if different arrangements were to apply to such overseas travel.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) highlighted the risk and recommended measures be taken to address the potential threat.

The previous week Dr Holohan also wrote to the minister saying he was worried about people taking summer holidays abroad, and he called for a mandatory quarantine of 14 days after flying back.

It should apply to everyone returning to Ireland from overseas with limited exceptions, such as supply chain workers and those travelling to Northern Ireland. They could be placed in a "designated facility".

All newly arrived passengers should also have to complete a public health locator form.

He said Nphet was concerned that, as the number of domestic cases of the virus here declines and we move towards easing measures, the "relative importance of the risk of importation of cases from overseas increases".

The aim was to eliminate non-essential travel and Nphet was concerned that Irish citizens may be actively planning to resume travel overseas in the near term for tourism.

Meanwhile, in the letter sent to Mr Harris last week giving the go-ahead from Nphet for the start of phase one of the roadmap exiting lockdown, Dr Holohan said workplaces had the potential to become the centre for new clusters of infection as public health measures are eased.

There is a need for the "slow, gradual, stepwise and incremental easing of some restrictions" on the proviso there is a strong emphasis of the risks involved.

He said there will be an ongoing risk of Covid-19 for nursing homes over the next six to 18 months and it was recommended that an expert independent panel be set up to oversee the issue.

This would examine the measures needed to 2021 to protect nursing homes.

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