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Lockdown laws ‘will only ever be used to save lives’, says health minister

Simon Harris said he hoped he would never need to use any of the powers the Government is set to secure with the passage of emergency legislation.

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Republic of Ireland's Minister for Health Simon Harris (Aidan Crawley/PA)

Republic of Ireland's Minister for Health Simon Harris (Aidan Crawley/PA)

Republic of Ireland's Minister for Health Simon Harris (Aidan Crawley/PA)

Emergency laws to lockdown parts of Ireland or order people to stay indoors during the coronavirus outbreak will only be used to save lives, the Health Minister has said.

Simon Harris said he hoped he would never be required to use any of the powers the Government is set to secure with the passage of legislation in the Dail later on Thursday.

Under the laws, which will initially be in place until May 9, the authorities can order people to stay indoors, close down non-essential businesses, cancel events and have the ability to impose targeted restrictions on specific areas of the country.

A PA infographic about total coronavirus cases in Ireland
(PA Graphics)

“We will only use these on the advice of the chief medical officer (Dr Tony Holohan) and our public health experts because we don’t expect to be in this place, we don’t want to be in this place,” he said.

Mr Harris, speaking to RTE Radio 1, said the legislation would mean if such decisions had to be taken, they could been taken quickly.

“We need to have those powers to act decisively to save lives,” he said.

A total of 366 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in Ireland to date. Two people with the illness have died.

Announcing the cancellation of Leaving Cert oral examinations, Education Minister Joe McHugh said on Thursday that the ideal scenario would see the predicted surge of cases peak in “mid-April”.

Education Minster Joe McHugh
Education Minster Joe McHugh briefed the media about the impact of Covid-19 on upcoming examinations (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Harris said he was conscious of the worry within communities across Ireland.

“This is a time where people are really nervous, really anxious … people are worried, I detect that right across the country,” he said.

“I want people to know that these measures are only ever going to be used to protect us all, to keep people safe and to save lives.

“They are measures I hope I never have to use but equally I hope by putting them in law the Irish people know how seriously we’re taking this situation.”

The legislation going through the Dail on Thursday will also provide financial support to those workers who are forced to take time off work to self-isolate or who have lost their job due to the economic fallout from the outbreak.

A limited number of TDs will attend the hearing due to social distancing measures that are in place across the country.

Leinster House
Social distancing measures mean only a limited number of TDs will attend the hearing (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Harris said the number of people being tested for the coronavirus each day in Ireland was set to reach 15,000.

He said the Irish authorities would try to continue the policy of community testing and contact tracing for as long as was practical.

“I am really proud that we are continuing to do community testing, some countries have stopped it,” Mr Harris said.

“It will mean people in Ireland are going to have to wait a few days for a test. But why we are doing this is because the World Health Organisation said ‘test, test, test’ – the more of this virus we can find, isolate and contact anyone who might have been in contact with it, the greater a chance you have of slowing down the spread and, if we can slow down the spread of this virus, we can save lives.

“We will reach a point, every country will reach a point, where you have to say you’ve got to slow down community testing, but we are nowhere near there and we want to keep going for as long as possible.”

Earlier it emerged that more than 30,000 people have responded to a massive recruitment drive across the Irish health service.

The Be On Call For Ireland campaign launched on Tuesday to seek help from healthcare professionals who are not already working in the public health service.

The recruitment call came with the message: “Your country needs you.”

Mr Harris said the projection of 15,000 people infected by the end of March was a worst-case scenario based on no mitigation measures being taken.

He said the public’s adherence to social distancing steps would have a direct impact on bringing that total down.

“If we make a real effort and follow the public health advice and all of these awkward things that have been put in place in terms of schools being closed and working from home and basic things like washing our hands, we can reduce that number,” he said.

Mr Harris said steps were under way to secure more ventilators.

The minister confirmed the HSE currently owned 500 and that there were plans to have 250 intensive care beds open.

He said there was a plan to take over 164 ventilation rooms in private hospitals.

Mr Harris said discussions were also under way with companies based in Ireland that exported ventilators to other countries to ensure a supply was retained within the country.

He said 300 more ventilators would be obtained commercially in the coming days, with 80/90 more each week after that.

But the minister added: “We’ve got to be truthful, we’ve got to be honest with people – if we don’t slow down the spread of this disease, no matter how many we buy, no matter how many beds are opened, it won’t be enough.

“So what we do today (in adhering to social distancing) will directly impact on the ability of our health service to cope.”

He said: “I can’t stop this virus being in Ireland, nobody can, but what we can stop together are lots of older people getting very sick at the same time and actually save lives.”

PA