When a group of Waterford students left for a skiing trip on Saturday, February 15, they were headed for a country on the verge of a viral epidemic. The Covid-19 coronavirus had just reached Italy. The World Health Organisation recorded three new cases on the same day that 40 pupils and four teachers from St Paul's CBS boarded an Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Milan. They were on their way to Folgaria, a ski resort in the Trentino region. At Milan, the coronavirus had already made its presence felt. "We were getting our temperature taken by doctors to make sure we didn't have any fever or any sign of coronavirus," said one student on the trip.
Seven days later, Italy was top of the coronavirus table in Europe and St Paul's CBS were back at Milan airport for the journey home. Three cases of infection in Italy had become 59 and two people were dead. Luckily for St Paul's CBS, their holiday destination was outside the coronavirus risk zone and they were not checked for symptoms on the journey home.
As it turns out, Northern Italy is a popular destination with Irish schools for mid-term skiing trips and students from another school in Northern Ireland were on the same plane as St Paul's CBS.
The students returned to school in Waterford last Monday morning, by which time the number of infections had risen to 124 cases in Italy. The following day, the school texted parents: "We have met the students and teachers today and they are all healthy and not presenting with any symptoms of the coronavirus. We have contacted the HSE [Health Service Executive] and have been told that we were skiing in an area of zero to no risk."
A second message followed the next day, offering reassurance that parents, students and teachers were still showing no symptoms: "We have spoken to the students on the trip about the type of things to look out for and gave them handouts to read."
Jason Murphy, a Waterford Fianna Fail county councillor whose son was on the trip, said families were still worried. The school had been "fantastic" in terms of sharing information from the HSE, he said, but the virus has a 14-day incubation period. "We are all waiting for the clock to count down. It's up to 14 days that symptoms can appear so we're all waiting until [next] Saturday to be totally safe," he said.
"They were a couple of hundred kilometres away from where [the outbreak] was. But, at the same time, they still had to fly through the airport at Milan."
As if to underline the threat, the family heard that the Northern Ireland students who were on the same flight were put into isolation as a precaution.
Mr Murphy had been speaking to me on the phone from Waterford last Thursday afternoon. Within two hours of hanging up, Ireland's Public Health Agency confirmed the first case of Covid-19 on the island of Ireland.
An adult had recently flown from Northern Italy to Dublin Airport and travelled from there to Northern Ireland. The adult was later reported to be a woman, who had returned from Italy sometime last week, but the public health agency has not confirmed how she travelled from Dublin to Belfast.
Within 24 hours, health authorities on both sides of the Border said they had tracked the patient's journey and traced the people sitting two rows either side of her on the plane, and others who came in closest contact with her. According to WHO guidelines, one of the ways the virus spreads is through close contact, which it describes as 15-minute exposure from a distance of two metres.
People who travelled on public transport were advised there was no need to be concerned. Bus Eireann was told that the person did not use its services, while the Dublin-Belfast train, The Enterprise, was sanitised as a precaution. The cabin crew on the Aer Lingus fight are now in a 14-day period of self-isolation - which requires them to stay home and keep away from family and friends. So, too, are the passengers who sat two rows either side of the infected patient on the plane.
Last night, the first case of the coronavirus in the Republic was confirmed in a man in the eastern part of the country. The case is associated with travel from an affected area in northern Italy.
Covid-19 has swept across continents in two months from its suspected epicentre - a live animal market in the city of Wuhan in China. On New Year's Eve, a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown origin were reported to the World Health Organisation.
As of this weekend, over 85,000 people have been infected and approximately 3,000 have died, triggering rising alarm, collapsing stock prices, disrupting travel and threatening economies.
Last week, its dramatic progression was most evident in Italy, where the number of cases rocketed in 15 days from three to over 1,000 yesterday, with 29 deaths. South Korea reported more than 800 new coronavirus cases yesterday and a man who caught the virus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship became the first British citizen to die from coronavirus.
The Health Service Executive says it is "well prepared for Covid-19". Irish scientists and health officials have been monitoring the progression of the virus closely. The National Public Health Emergency Team was convened last month and the HSE's National Crisis Management Team has met on 13 occasions since January 26.
At a press conference last week, the HSE's director, Paul Reid, disclosed that it had procured 700,000 gowns; four million gloves; 1.7 million masks; 1.5 million surgical masks; and 400,000 face shield protections, while 13,500 PPE (personal protective equipment) packs had been distributed to GPs, public health departments and primary care centres. The HSE has also bought 12 portable ventilators, in the event they are needed for treating patients who may need oxygen.
However, Dr Tom Ryan, a former president of the Irish Hospital Consultants' Association and a consultant in intensive care and anaesthesia, believes the system is ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak of the coronavirus, largely because of a shortage of intensive-care beds.
Patients will inevitably be hospitalised and 4pc of those who are hospitalised will develop an "overwhelming illness" requiring admission to intensive care for life support.
With no spare intensive-care beds, medics will have to "improvise" life-support care. "These improvised arrangements may involve providing life support outside the intensive-care unit, in areas such as coronary care units, theatre recovery areas, emergency departments, and operating theatres. These extraordinary arrangements, which would not conventionally be regarded as safe, will inevitably impact upon the routine and elective services of the acute hospitals and will have knock-on effects for many patients who attend the acute hospitals in Ireland," he said.
There was a "significant risk" that routine hospital services would be "severely disrupted". If the Government had acted on recommendations for an addition 200 to 300 intensive-care beds, hospitals would be better positioned to react to the coronavirus.
Ireland is in a phase of "containment" - keeping the virus contained for as long as possible. The next phase is "mitigation".
The HSE said that "in preparation for any potential mitigation phase, the HSE National Crisis Management Team will continue to act in readiness regarding ICU capacity, isolation and identification of cases, staff training and upskilling, and increased resources as required".
Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory at University College Dublin, says that if it is not contained, the virus could overwhelm the hospital services: "Not only will you have significant mortality from the direct effect of the virus, you will have significant mortality and economic hardship because of the indirect effects of the virus."
As to how many Irish people are at risk and how many could die? In a worst-case scenario, it could be thousands.
Mr de Gascun said data from China shows that 80pc of infections were mild, 15pc severe and 5pc critical. Applying the logic learned from other flu pandemics, the rate of attack - the speed of spread - was 20pc to 40pc.
"If you apply a similar logic, you are looking at one million infected in Ireland - 80pc of those are mild, 15pc are severe and 5pc are critical. That is a worst-case scenario."
The figures translate as 800,000 with mild symptoms, 150,000 who will be severely ill and 50,000 who will be critically ill. Applying the current estimated mortality rate of 2pc, 20,000 people will die.
The WHO has declared the virus an international public health emergency rather than a pandemic. Last week, the organisation pointed out that "we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death". This weekend, however, it raised its risk level to the "highest level" and WHO's director general warned the virus could "go in any direction".
Although the virus has only just been detected here, it is already having an impact.
The National Virus Reference Laboratory, which tests for the virus, doubled its capacity to 120 tests a day in anticipation of rising demand. Masks and antiseptic wipes were selling out last week. Callers to RTE's Today with Sean O'Rourke radio show sought advice about everything from upcoming weddings organised in Italy to whether office air conditioning could spread the disease. Unions representing health and transport workers have been seeking advice from health officials.
This may be the new normal. A vaccination - which scientists are working on - could take 12 to 18 months to come to market, according to Mr de Gascon. "This is a new virus. There are very few easy answers in relation to this. We don't know what the coronavirus world will look like in six month's time."
From one moment to the next in Italy, the earth has moved beneath our feet. We have been plunged into a hazy nightmare where it seems that the apocalypse might not be exactly now but, in truth, it is only a matter of minutes away.
The Government's response to the novel coronavirus, now known as Covid-19, is an object lesson in why people no longer trust authority. Simon Harris's appearance on Sean O'Rourke on Friday, in the wake of confirmation of the first case of the virus on the island, was just another depressing exercise in evasion, centred on a basic pitch: 'Trust me, I'm a minister.'