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Government not urging cancellation of St Patrick’s Day events over coronavirus

Leo Varadkar said the decision to postpone Ireland’s Six Nations game against Italy was due to specific circumstances around that match.

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left) and Minister for Health Simon Harris (PA)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left) and Minister for Health Simon Harris (PA)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left) and Minister for Health Simon Harris (PA)

The Irish Government is not currently advising the cancellation of St Patrick’s Day celebrations due to coronavirus, the Taoiseach has said.

Leo Varadkar acknowledged that the situation could change in the two weeks leading up to the traditional March 17 festivities across the country.

The Irish Republic has one confirmed case of Covid-19 – a student from a school in the eastern part of the country who contracted the virus in northern Italy.

The school he attends has already closed for two weeks as a precautionary measure and, on Tuesday, it emerged that members of a musical band who had contact with the student have also been asked to self-isolate, until March 15.

Ireland’s Six Nations rugby match against Italy scheduled for this Saturday has been postponed due to the outbreak.

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Coronavirus awareness leaflets being handed out at Dublin Airport (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Varadkar said it was due to specific circumstances around that game – namely that it would have seen thousands of people from affected areas of Italy congregating in a stadium in Dublin.

He did not issue the same cancellation advice to the organisers of the St Patrick’s events.

Health officials in Ireland are currently finalising guidelines that will provide organisers of all mass events with advice and a set of criteria in relation to the appropriateness of cancelling major gatherings.

“As of now, as of today, we only have one case of Covid-19 in the state, it was imported and it has been contained, so we are not advising anyone to cancel any gatherings at this stage,” Mr Varadkar told a post-cabinet news conference in Dublin.

“But bear in mind the St Patrick’s Day festival and events are two weeks away and a lot can happen between now and then but, as of now, we’re not advising to cancel major events or major gatherings such as that.”

Earlier, an international virology expert from the UK urged the Irish government to axe the St Patrick’s Day events amid fears of spreading the virus.

Professor John Oxford told RTE that the state should take the issue “a bit more seriously” and recommend cancellation.

On Tuesday, Mr Varadkar announced he is to lead a special cabinet sub-committee to co-ordinate the state’s response to the Covid-19 situation.

He said Ireland remained in the “containment” phase and that was why actions being taken in other countries harder hit by the virus were not being introduced.

“There will be no panic but there will also be no complacency,” he said.

“What we are pursuing in Ireland at the moment is a policy of containment and making sure that any cases that are identified are contact traced and we contain any potential outbreak.

“We may come to the point in a few weeks’ time, if that’s not successful, where we move to the mitigation phase and that will be treating the ill rather than trying to contain the virus but we are not at that point yet.”

He said the Government’s response would be “proportionate” and based on scientific and medical evidence.

Mr Varadkar said there were no plans for new public health legislation to deal with the virus, explaining that the existing legal framework was “very strong”.

At the post-cabinet briefing, Health Minister Simon Harris addressed confusion about the band that has been asked to self-isolate after it was established they had contact with the student being treated for coronavirus.

Earlier on Tuesday, health officials wrongly claimed a letter that emerged detailing the advice to the band members to self-isolate was a fake. It was later clarified that the letter was in fact genuine.

Mr Harris confirmed the band had been asked to self-isolate. He insisted officials who got their facts wrong were working under pressure and were acting in “good faith” when they made the mistake.

“The letter in relation to a band practice and members of a band being asked to self-isolate was not a hoax, it is true,” he said.

“And it arises from the contact tracing exercise that was undertaken in relation to the one person that we have in our country that has been diagnosed with Covid-19.”

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Leo Varadkar is to lead a cabinet sub-committee on the Government’s response to coronavirus (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Varadkar said Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe had advised Cabinet that the virus could result in a slowdown in economic growth in the country.

“The Minister for Finance presented us with a memo today at Cabinet suggesting the economic impact, again that’s difficult to predict at this stage, but it suggested that it could result in a slowdown in growth in Ireland, and a slowdown in global growth,” he said.

“But that would most likely be a blip, if you like, a slowdown in growth that would then rebound or bounce back. But it is all speculative at this stage. The major impact on Ireland’s economy will probably depend as much on what happens in China as what happens here.”

He added: “And the indications are that the Chinese economy is slowing down, maybe even going into recession, and that would inevitably have an impact on us.

“On the positive side our economy is in very good health, as you know, and Exchequer returns that you will see published tomorrow indicate that we have had a very strong and very good start to 2020 economically. So we do have headroom and headspace to deal with any economic slowdown.”

PA