A professor of immunology has raised concerns that Ireland’s scale of testing for Covid-19 is picking up only one in 10 cases.
Paul Moynagh said officials need to ramp up the level of testing before considering lifting any of the current restrictions.
He told RTE’s Morning Ireland: “In terms of community testing, if we’re picking up very few cases, the primary role they’re testing at the moment is for disease surveillance rather than being actively used to identify and suppress transmission.
“I think we need to address that and in fact, if you look at the WHO (World Health Organisation), they have indicated six conditions that a country must meet before considering lifting restrictions.
“At the top of them very much related to testing, and being able to test and trace every positive case and identify every contact.
“I don’t think we are anywhere near that situation.
“Then being able to control the hotspots of infections, such as nursing homes and obviously that’s a key challenge at the moment.”
Prof Moynagh said the Department of Health needs to increase the amount and speed of testing.
He added: “We tend to be quite reactive because we’ve moved to a situation of testing nursing homes, which I think’s absolutely the right thing to do, but that needs to be done at a scale where all residents and all workers can be tested.
“That probably needs to be done on a regular basis.
“That will essentially soak up most of the testing capacity, and then we reduce the level of testing we can do at community level.
“That is a concern of mine. I think we really need to look at testing in a very serious way, and begin to come up with a strategy, a road map and action plan in terms of where we’re going with testing.
“If we’re only picking up one in 10 cases, if we’re going to use testing as an active way to suppress transmission, then we definitely need that in order to lift restrictions.
“The best defence we have against limiting transmission of this virus is isolation and as we move, inevitably, to lifting some of the restrictions, we need something there to help us in terms of suppressing that transmission.”
On Wednesday, the Department of Health confirmed a further 49 Covid-19-related deaths, taking the total since the outbreak began to 769.
An additional 113 deaths are suspected to have links to coronavirus, the Department of Health has said.
Health Minister Simon Harris urged people to stick with the Covid-19 restrictions, warning that some are starting to slip.
Speaking to FM104, he said: “I have noticed that roads are getting a little busier. People are beginning to stretch the public health advice and wondering if they’re doing OK and thinking ‘Can we not just do this, that or the other’.”
“On a human level you get that because it is tough for people, but we have to stay the course because there is a really thin line between where we are today and where we could have been.
“My worry is that if complacency sets in, we could end up in a very bad place.
“I need to be blunt with people – on the 5th of May there is not going to be a light-switch moment where everything is going back to normal.
“I’m saying stick to it – I want to be able to see my family and friends again and get back to normal. What I can tell you is, it will be sooner if we stick with it.
“If we start at this stage to get a little complacent and slack off in terms of our own personal responsibility … more lives will be lost and the restrictions will be extended.
“The more we can do in the next 10 days to drive down the virus between now and the 5th of May, the more options we will have as a country and we can see how we can live alongside the virus.”
A senior civil servant said flexible working arrangements will be put in place for the partners of healthcare workers to help with childcare.
At a Government press briefing on Thursday, Liz Canavan confirmed that two measures have been agreed by the Government in relation to childcare for health workers.
“The first measure relates to circumstances where one parent, guardian or partner is an essential healthcare worker,” she said.
“In this case the other parent, guardian or partner will be supported by their public sector employer to remain at home to care for their children, so as to ensure the essential healthcare worker is able to go to work.
“In the first instance, flexible working arrangements will be put in place for the other parent or guardian, such as working from home or working adjusted hours or shifts.
“Though not anticipated, in the event that flexible arrangements do not allow the essential healthcare worker to attend work, it will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
“NPHET (the National Public Health Emergency Team) has indicated there’s no public health rationale to suggest this measure cannot be implemented as soon as practicable.
“The second measure relates to the provision of childcare in workers’ homes.
“NPHET has indicated that this will be part of its consideration of a phased reduction of social distancing guidance, which are already in place.”