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Martin promises 'fluid' long-term response to virus

Harris calls for targeted lockdowns, more testing

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Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the treatment of the employees had been “shabby, shoddy and unacceptable.” Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the treatment of the employees had been “shabby, shoddy and unacceptable.” Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the treatment of the employees had been “shabby, shoddy and unacceptable.” Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Taoiseach Micheál Martin is promising a 'fluid' long-term response to the threat of Covid-19 deep into next year - after his Tánaiste yesterday raised the prospect of the population ultimately developing herd immunity.

Leo Varadkar, a former health minister, said if the coronavirus continued to threaten as it has done since earlier this year - with new outbreaks in countries like New Zealand, that had been clear - then either a vaccine would be found, the virus would be successfully suppressed by active measures, or Ireland would ultimately develop herd immunity.

The British government ran into flak at the beginning of the crisis after a Downing Street spokesman, understood to be Boris Johnson's adviser Dominic Cummings, suggested the UK was pursuing herd immunity as a policy. It quickly reversed its position and locked down, a week later than Ireland.

Senior Fianna Fáil sources were reluctant to endorse or dismiss the Tánaiste's suggestion of a herd immunity policy.

A spokeswoman for the Taoiseach said the Government was looking at a new plan for the six to nine months after it is published, which would be more responsive to European and global developments, as well as heedful of national public health advice.

It would be a 'fluid system' that was cognisant of local, national, European and world developments involving the virus, she said, indicating these changes could be either good or bad since both the virus and the global health response were evolving.

Another source in the senior government party said Mr Varadkar was doing no more than reflecting a range of possible outlooks for the time ahead, and had not set out to "frighten the horses".

It was possible that Ireland could ultimately develop herd immunity, the Tánaiste said, although the focus will be on suppressing the virus "to such a level that we don't see millions of people getting affected".

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Herd immunity: Leo Varadkar said the focus would be on virus supression. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Herd immunity: Leo Varadkar said the focus would be on virus supression. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Herd immunity: Leo Varadkar said the focus would be on virus supression. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

The aim remains that "we don't get into the situation whereby our health service and our hospitals are overwhelmed, as we have seen happen in some countries", Mr Varadkar added.

After the revelation that New Zealand may have imported the virus in freight, Mr Varadkar said the strategy was "to slow and minimise the virus in order to get as close to zero as we can in terms of cases".

But he added that it has now proven impossible to prevent outbreaks "in even the most remote places in the world" - a reference to Australia and New Zealand, where both ­Melbourne and Auckland are back under lockdown.

Ireland would aim "to keep (coronavirus) as low-level as possible and to minimise infections, minimise the risk of our health service being overwhelmed, which we've done successfully - until such time as we develop herd immunity, which will take an extremely long time", he said.

That was possible "if we continue like this", he said, but what was more likely was development of a vaccine or an effective treatment for the virus itself.

As to herd immunity, or an effective treatment for the virus, "nobody can predict for sure how long that's going to take", Mr Varadkar said.

But he added: "We shouldn't forget how far we've come. Our economy is now largely reopened. Most people are back to work. We can enjoy sports again, if not in person. We can go to restaurants. We can go to work.

"We have come a very long way since March or April, but this is going to be a longer haul battle than maybe we anticipated a few months ago."

The British government referred to the development of "herd immunity" at the beginning of the crisis in March, which would have meant the infection of tens of millions.

But it later dropped the phrase from its communications and emulated the Irish model of lockdown and suppression of community infection.

Meanwhile, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris has called for more targeted lockdowns rather than shutting down entire counties. He also said the State's testing programme needs to be ramped up.

Mr Harris said it has become clear that Covid-19 is "going to be here for an awful long time" and sufficient testing capacity is in place, but the number of tests being carried out has fallen in recent weeks.

Mr Harris said the Government can be "more sophisticated" in how restrictions can be applied and will need to learn from the county-wide restrictions in Kildare, Laois and Offaly that were introduced last Friday.

"We'll need to look at how that worked and see if there's learnings from that. Would it be possible, if you have a very regular programme of testing in meat factories, can we detect a problem quicker? Will we be able to act quicker the next time? Will we be able to move to close down a meat factory while we're awaiting the results? And would that mean an entire county wouldn't have to be shut down?" he said.

Speaking in Dublin yesterday, the former health minister added: "I do think the more forensic we can be, rather than kind of blanket shutdowns, the better it is for everybody's ­sanity."

Mr Harris said he was "very conscious" that some people in certain counties live "many, many, many miles away" from an outbreak.

He said that regular testing should have been carried out in meat factories since March, and that the capacity now exists to carry out up to 15,000 tests per day.

Irish Independent


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