THE reproductive rate of Covid-19 in Ireland has fallen to a rate of between 0.7 and 1, Health Minister Simon Harris has told the Dáil.
Mr Harris revealed the new figures, which indicate that efforts to suppress the virus in Ireland are working, as he also told TDs that hospital admissions have "plateaued".
He said that there are now four different methodologies for calculating the reproductive rate of the virus - known as the R0 (r-naught) - which are all showing a rate of between 0.7 and 1.
The R0 measures how many people each infected person is likely to pass the virus on to. A rate of less than one would indicate the spread of the virus is being suppressed.
NUI Maynooth Professor Philip Nolan, Chair of NPHET Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, said that we are "successfully suppressing" the spread of coronavirus in Ireland.
Professor Nolan, who is tasked with predicting the further growth rate of the virus, told a press briefing this evening: "Our model today is showing four reproductive numbers, illustrating the different stages of the disease in Ireland over the past six weeks.
"We now estimate our R0 to be between 0.7 and 1.0, which means current restrictions are successfully suppressing the disease."
Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan added: "The data clearly shows that there are two very different experiences of COVID-19 in Ireland today. In the population at large, the virus is contained and effectively suppressed.
"However, the experience of the disease in long-term residential care settings continues to be a source of concern.
"In order to protect the vulnerable the first task was to suppress the virus in the population at large. We are increasingly confident that we are achieving this. All of our efforts now need to be on extinguishing COVID-19 in our community residential settings, including nursing homes."
Dr Tony Holohan confirmed 724 new Covid-19 cases in Ireland today.
Of the cases, an additional 629 were registered in Ireland and the other 95 by a laboratory in Germany.
In total, 13,271 have now tested positive for the virus in the Republic of Ireland.
A further 43 patients in Ireland have died after contracting the coronavirus. It brings the total number of deaths associated with Covid-19 here to 486.
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned that only a scientific breakthrough like a vaccine for coronavirus will truly allow life to go back to the way it was.
Opening a Dáil debate on the Covid-19 crisis he expressed condolences to the families of the 444 people who have died from the disease in Ireland.
He said they' are "people not statistics" who had families, friends, lives and stories.
Mr Varadkar said that the emergence of Covid-19 globally has presented an "unprecedented set of challenges" and there is "no roadmap" for how any country can respond.
He said the response here has involved building capacity in the health service, protecting those most at risk, and developing policies to mitigate the impact on the economy and workers.
Mr Varadkar said the overriding priority has been minimising the loss of life.
In relation to lifting restrictions Mr Varadkar said plans are being developed based on expert opinion and Ireland is looking at what is being done in other countries who are a few weeks ahead of Ireland in the outbreak.
He said he doesn't yet know if restrictions can be lifted on May 5 but said that when they are relaxed it will be done gradually over a number of months.
He said they may even need to be imposed again to avoid a second outbreak.
Mr Varadkar said that "only a scientific breakthrough - a vaccine or an effective anti-viral medicine will truly allow life to go back to being as it was."
The Taoiseach said that other questions that arise include what needs to be done to get people back to work and take what has been learned to build a better society.
He said they are questions for the next government.
Mr Varadkar wished Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald well in her recovery from coronavirus.
The party's deputy leader Pearse Doherty is standing in for her in the Dáil today.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin also wished her well and said she had an "unacceptably long wait" for her test results, which he said must have been "unbearable".
He was also cautious in speaking of when restrictions on everyday life due to coronavirus should be lifted.
But he said the process of how lifting the restrictions should be implemented should be outlined to the public and he pointed out how other countries have done this over the last week.
Mr Martin said: "Clearly Ireland is not ready to begin reversing the main restrictions introduced in the last month.
"But we are certainly in a position where we should outline the key decision points and how the process of lifting restrictions will be implemented. "Many countries have done this in the past week… We can learn lessons from how their situation evolves".
He said: "Any response to an unprecedented and rapidly moving emergency will always involve errors. What matters is to look for them and deal with them."
"When this is eventually over a systematic approach to learning from mistakes or oversights will be essential to making sure that we can respond even faster and more effectively to future crises."
Mr Martin also highlighted concerns about the number of deaths in nursing homes.
"We all know that the situation in nursing home is now at the forefront of the spread of the virus".
He said: "Unfortunately I have to report to the house so I know of at least one case where relatives of a person in a nursing home have been informed that the nursing home has been told by the department that it should not give out information about the number of cases in the home."
Mr Martin said: "This information will come out anyway...
"It would be much better to help the nursing homes in showing them how to communicate information and what reassurances (they could give) families that their loved ones are being protected as much as possible."
Mr Varadkar also told the Dáil today that Leaving Cert students will not start college until October or November because of the postponement of the State exam until late summer.
Mr Varadkar said the postponement of the Leaving Cert until July and August at the earliest would result in the beginning of the college term being pushed back for sixth year students to allow sufficient time to correct exam papers.
"It will probably be October or November, but as soon as we have more information, as soon as there is more certainty around it that the Minister for Education will put that in the public domain because e do very much appreciate that there are 60,000 students preparing for their Leaving Cert, who have been very badly disrupted by Covid-19, are very worried about this and want certainty about the exams and want certainty about their future."
Responding to questions from the Opposition, the Taoiseach said Covid-19 will "exact a significant toll" on the population in Irish nursing homes.
"I think we need to remember that this virus is in our community, nursing homes and long term care facilities are part of our community and once in the community, the virus targets those who are old, those who are infirm and those with underlying medical conditions," Mr Varadkar said.
"And for that reason it is going to exact a significant toll on our nursing home population and the people who live there and also long term care settings. It's our job to make sure that we minimise and reduce that toll and that impact as much as we possibly can."
He said the Government was attempting to minimise this as much as possible by increasing financial support, providing more personal protective equipment (PPE), more testing, extra staff and more expert advice in infection control.
He admitted the response is not happening as much or as quickly as the government which is "a reflection of the scale of the crisis".
He said the issue of nursing homes has always been on the agenda or a topic for discussion at meetings of the Cabinet sub-committee. "People in care homes and nursing homes they're terrified of getting this virus, and their family are terrified for them - and we need to be responsible in our commentary around this," he said.
Mr Varadkar warned TDs to expect "problems on and off" with testing for the virus over the coming weeks due to shortages of various testing kits, reagent chemicals and lab capacity.
He said that over 90,000 tests have been carried out and Ireland remains in the top four or five countries in the EU in numbers of the number of tests per head of population.
Responding to calls from Green Party TD Malcolm Noonan for people to wear face masks, Mr Varadkar said the "jury is totally out" on whether the wider population should wear masks, but said the "trend seems to be going that way". He said they were essential for people who have symptoms of the virus and healthcare workers.
Meanwhile, Labour has called for a €1,000 solidarity payment for every healthcare worker in the country.
Party leader Alan Kelly told the Dáil that the State should gift healthcare workers a €1,000 pandemic payment to honour their work in tackling the spread of the coronavirus in recent weeks.
Mr Kelly told TDs: "With the May Day Bank Holiday approaching, the day in which we honour workers, I propose introducing this payment in the first week of May as a symbolic gesture of gratitude for all the work our healthcare workers have done and will continue to do to keep us safe over the coming days, weeks and months."