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Irish health officials 'won't rule out' closing border as cases in England increase

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Hopeful: Sir Patrick Vallance

Hopeful: Sir Patrick Vallance

10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty

Hopeful: Sir Patrick Vallance

The Republic of Ireland's top health officials will today discuss the possibility of closing the Irish border in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ireland's chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, was asked yesterday whether unrestricted movement across the Irish border should continue in the context of differing health policies on tackling the virus.

The senior medic said the issue of all-Ireland travel would be discussed at today's meeting of the National Public Health Emergency Team, which leads the country's efforts in tackling the pandemic.

He said potential further restrictions on movement onto the island would also be considered.

"We won't rule anything in or rule anything out - will give further consideration again tomorrow, and that will include questions of movement on the island," he said yesterday.

Dr Holohan also challenged the suggestion that the Covid-19 infection rate could currently be lower if restrictions on movement had been introduced earlier. He said introducing measures too early risked public fatigue when adherence was most needed.

Dr Holohan said he and his team would only recommend a relaxation of current restrictions on movement when it was appropriate to do so.

"We will keep the progress of this disease under review right the way through that period, we will keep the effectiveness of these measures under review," he said. "We believe we've asked a huge amount of society. We will want to lift these measures as soon as we reasonably can. We won't recommend the lifting of these measures any point earlier than is responsible for us to do so."

Epidemic modelling expert Professor Philip Nolan said social distancing measures have more than halved the growth rate of coronavirus in the Republic.

The 33% rate recorded before restrictions were put in place has fallen to 15% in recent days, the chairman of the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group (IEMAG) said.

Professor Nolan said the rate had to drop further if the healthcare system was to cope with the peak of the virus.

"Clearly we're flattening the curve," he said. "And by definition that pushes the peak further out. And that's good news. That's what we want."

Meanwhile, there has been almost a 50% rise in just a few days in the number of people being treated for coronavirus in England's hospitals, according to new figures.

Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said on Friday that more than 6,200 patients were in hospital with Covid-19. But yesterday, he said this figure had jumped to more than 9,000.

England's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the NHS was seeing around an additional 1,000 patients a day and described this daily rise as "stable". He said: "I do expect that number to continue. I expect people coming every day to be about that, it may go up a little bit. And in two or three weeks you would expect that to stabilise and to start to go down a bit."

It came as 1,408 people were confirmed to have died in UK hospitals after testing positive for Covid-19, as of 5pm on Sunday. This is up 180 from 1,228 the day before.

Meanwhile, Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London and author of a report warning of mass deaths if the UK did not introduce strict controls, said the epidemic was spreading at different rates in different parts of the country, but across the UK perhaps 2% or 3% of the population had been infected.

Based on the estimated UK population of 66 million, this would mean between 1.3 million and 2 million people have or have had the illness.

Belfast Telegraph