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Expert urges St Patrick's Day Northern Ireland celebrations to be shelved

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Measures: Dr Connor Bamford

Measures: Dr Connor Bamford

Measures: Dr Connor Bamford

Northern Ireland's annual St Patrick's Day celebrations should be shelved this year to halt the spread of coronavirus, a leading virologist has said.

Dr Connor Bamford also backed comments made by a doctor who is spearheading the search for a Covid-19 vaccine, Dr Richard Hatchett, who said that the virus is "the most frightening disease" he has ever encountered.

This is not because of the number of people coronavirus will kill in Northern Ireland, but because of its apparent ability to spread and its potential to significantly impact the health service and economy, he said.

Dr Bamford was speaking after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the spread of Covid-19 can be significantly slowed, or even reversed, through the implementation of robust containment and control measures.

"I think there is no chance to properly contain the virus in the UK," he explained.

"Everyone can become infected, there is no evidence that anyone is completely resistant so that means we need to slow down the spread of cases so that they are spread out over a longer time.

"We want people to become infected at different times and perhaps even slow the spread down until the warmer weather, not only because there aren't the same winter pressures on the health service, but also because there is evidence that slightly warmer temperatures help to stop the virus.

"That's an idea that has been put out there, although we still don't really know.

"If there is a surge in cases, I do think that it's possible that testing capacity will be overwhelmed and then we only have in the region of 100 intensive care beds in Northern Ireland and that's too low for what could happen. And if people have to self-isolate that will also have an damaging impact on the economy."

Dr Bamford stressed that the majority of people who are infected in coming months will not become seriously unwell.

"We have even seen that children who are infected don't really become unwell and even if you are over 70 and get infected, the chances are it's going to be a mild disease, but it becomes significant for older individuals with pre-existing health conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes," he continued.

"On a personal level, I think most people are probably going to be okay, but on a population level, this virus has the potential to do a lot of damage and that's why it's so scary.

"It's related to the SARS virus, which seemed to be most contagious when a person was very sick, so it was easy to isolate an infected person as they were in hospital, so we were able to control the spread, but with coronavirus, it seems to be most infectious earlier on when a person isn't necessarily symptomatic and that's what makes it scary.

"Closing schools is an idea to stop the spread, not so much to protect children, but to slow down the rate of infection.

"We need to be looking at public transport, sporting events, events such as St Patrick's Day - I think it would be a bit crazy if it went ahead.

"The advice from the WHO is that measures like these work best if they are done early on, so I do think this is something we need to be thinking about over the next couple of weeks.

"In that way, it is also important that employers are prepared to help stop the spread of the virus by making it easier for people to work from home.

"It is important to remember that most people are going to be okay but that this virus will come back next winter and every winter after that, so we want a vaccine and treatment."

Northern Ireland is still in the containment phase of its response to the virus but the situation is constantly under review.

The next phase would be one of delay and the government has already said it is considering the possibility of closing schools and restricting travel.

Currently there are no plans to put in place a lockdown similar to the one that has been put in place in Italy.

Belfast Telegraph