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'Urgent need for action' as critical Covid-19 virus R-rate rises back above one

Concern raised as close contacts not being tested

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Dr Ronan Glynn. Pic Stephen Collins

Dr Ronan Glynn. Pic Stephen Collins

Dr Ronan Glynn. Pic Stephen Collins

Fears are growing that the country is at risk of another Covid-19 surge after an increase in the spread of the virus as more people who were infected abroad return home.

Public health officials yesterday warned that although the virus was still at low levels there was an “immediate need to take care and caution” after 23 newly diagnosed cases were reported, an increase on previous weeks.

It emerged that 15 of the new infections were directly or indirectly due to foreign travel.

Acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn revealed that nine of the cases were related to one travel cluster, where the infection was picked up abroad and then spread to others, including to people in a wider community.

Prof Philip Nolan of Maynooth University, who tracks the spread of the virus, told yesterday’s health briefing that the R number – which indicates how many people a person who is positive for the virus could infect – is now “at or above one”. The R number is used to measure how fast the disease is spreading and if it rises above one, the numbers of cases will start to grow.

Asked whether he was alarmed, he said he would “sound a note of caution rather than alarm”.

But he warned: “There is an immediate need for all of us to take care and caution in our decisions and actions.” Concern is also rising that many young people are socialising without observing physical distancing.

Dr Glynn said: “Some 77pc of the new cases are under 25 years of age. Covid-19 is extremely infectious and none of us is immune. It is important we all continue to follow public health advice and risk-assess our actions.”

He again appealed to people not to holiday abroad this summer – despite the expected publication next week of a “green list” of countries to which people could travel to return home without the need to quarantine for two weeks.

All of the new cases reported yesterday were in younger age groups who were under 44 years of age.

This is the first time this level of concentration among these younger groups was seen in newly acquired infections.

Pubs were not implicated in the clusters announced yesterday.

Among the 140 new cases of the disease diagnosed in the past week the median age of people infected was 34.

Overall, the other indicators, such as admissions to hospital or intensive care, are stable or declining.

Ireland's 14-day incidence of the virus now stands at 2.9 per 100,000, which is still among the lowest in Europe.

Another six deaths from the virus were reported yesterday, bringing the toll to 1,743.

The National Public Health Emergency Team met to review Ireland's ongoing response to and preparedness for Covid-19 as well as the next phase of reopening the country, including pubs which only serve alcohol.

Dr Glynn said it was recommending that all visitors to healthcare settings, including hospitals, GP practices and pharmacies, should wear face coverings.

There is concern that some people who are being identified as close contacts of a person who tests positive are not turning up to be tested themselves for the virus.

One in every five contacts of people who are positive are not turning up for the first round of testing and nearly half are no-shows for the second test on day seven.

There were 6,000 tests carried out for the virus last week and 0.29pc were positive.

Meanwhile, almost 3,500 pubs set to restart business on July 20 still haven't received government Covid-19 guidelines.

Meanwhile, 26 pubs that reopened on June 29 could face prosecution for breaching Covid-19 health regulations, or licensing laws, gardaí have said.

The Vintners' Federation of Ireland (VFI) said the majority of rural pubs are yet to open, particularly those along the western seaboard.

In total, 3,438 pubs are due to restart business on July 20 but the VFI said they "urgently require" publication of pandemic safety guidelines.

However, gardaí found potential breaches of the health regulations or licensing laws, despite provision being offered to rectify the situation, at 26 pubs opened in the third phase of restarting the economy.

Officers found customers drinking alcohol but no evidence of food being served, or no receipts to show food had been sold.

Gardaí also said there was a lack of adherence to public health advice, with large groups at one table and little to no social distancing, no advisory signage, and no Covid-19 contact tracing being recorded.

Files will now be prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions, gardaí said.

Officers carried out 6,830 checks on pubs and restaurants between Friday, July 3 and Sunday, July 5.

Pubs serving food and restaurants were unveiled after restrictions were lifted by the Government.

Operation Navigation saw gardaí check 2,785 licensed premises. The majority - 2,759 - were complying with regulations and licensing laws.

The county with the largest number of unopened pubs is Cork, with 473 premises still not opened.

This was followed by Galway (273), Tipperary (223), Kerry (221), Mayo (218) and Donegal (180).

The VFI said despite being due to open within days, the pubs still did not know how they would need to adapt their businesses to ensure they comply with the public health requirements.

The delay is "also causing anxiety in some rural communities", a VHI spokesman added.

"Many of these unopened pubs serve as the only gathering locations or hospitality venues in their area."

Publican Marie Mellett, owner of Mellett's Bar in Swinford, Co Mayo, said the lack of guidelines is hampering preparations for reopening.

"After placing public health first by agreeing to close our business over 120 days ago, we're now crying out for the guidelines that will allow us to reopen," Ms Mellett said.

"Where are the guidelines? We're literally just days away from July 20 but there's nothing from the Government.

"For most rural pubs the bar counter is where all the action is, but we don't even know if bar stools will be allowed.

"If they're not, the impact on small pubs will be massive as many of our customers will only sit at the bar."

Publican Joe Sheridan, of Walsh's Bar in Dunmore, Co Galway, said: "The guidelines are critically important for publicans, who urgently need information about what work needs to be completed before we open."

Irish Independent