A return to partial social distancing measures that were in place before the current clampdown could lead to a sudden and unmanageable spike in cases, an expert Government adviser has warned.
Professor Philip Nolan, who leads the team modelling the virus’s spread through the Irish population, said “imaginative” measures were needed to allow people to resume certain activities in a safe way.
His comments came as chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan acknowledged that it was conceivable that the wearing of masks or other protective equipment by the public may be considered as one way to keep the virus suppressed when restrictions are eased.
Ireland recorded 43 deaths on Thursday, taking the national death toll to 486 since the outbreak began.
We can manage a modest rise in cases, if it's done slightly wrong, but we can't manage a huge rise in casesProfessor Philip Nolan
There were 724 further confirmed cases reported, bringing the total in Ireland to 13,271.
Prof Nolan, who presented his latest data at the daily briefing by the National Public Health Emergency Team, said all the key indicators of the virus’s growth – hospital admissions, ICU admissions, death rates and infection rates – had been stable since April 3.
“There has been a very considerable slowing in the growth of the epidemic,” he said.
The expert from NUI Maynooth said the reproduction rate – the number of people infected by each infected person – had also fallen from around four in the early stages of the outbreak to between 0.7 and one.
He said the challenge was to keep that rate at its current level or just slightly above it when restrictions were changed.
Prof Nolan said that before the March 28 introduction of the current restrictions on movement – which prevent people leaving their homes in all but exceptional circumstances – the rate was above two.
He warned that any return to that rate would have dire consequences for the health service.
“If the reproduction number goes back above two, back towards where we were with the kind of straightforward social distancing measures before the 28th of March then we get a very sudden, almost certainly unmanageable spike in disease,” he said.
I don't know yet if we will be able to relax restrictions on May 5. I know that if we can at all, it's going to be gradual and will happen over a number of monthsLeo Varadkar
“You clearly wouldn’t leave the relaxed measures in place for three weeks and watch that happen, but it sends a very clear signal that whatever happens after the 5th of May (when the current restrictions are due to expire) has to be approached exceptionally carefully.
“We can manage a modest rise in cases, if it’s done slightly wrong, but we can’t manage a huge rise in cases.”
Dr Holohan was asked whether masks could be considered.
He replied: “It’s conceivable, and I’m not making any prediction, it’s conceivable that we might have certain measures around the use of masks and PPE (personal protective equipment) and other kinds of things as part of how do we learn to live in a situation whereby we’re releasing some measures because we think it’s important to do so, but we want to minimise the risk of the transmission of infection having done that.”
Earlier, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he “doesn’t know” whether the Government will be able to relax the current restrictions on May 5.
Mr Varadkar said any change to the restrictions will be gradual and will happen over a number of months.
“We have the advantage of being able to look at other countries that are a few weeks ahead of us and seeing how their strategies are working or not,” he told the Dail.
“I don’t know yet if we will be able to relax restrictions on May 5. I know that if we can at all, it’s going to be gradual and will happen over a number of months.”
Mr Varadkar said only a scientific breakthrough, a vaccine or an effective antiviral medicine will allow life to go back to normal.
He added: “Other breakthroughs, like a reliable antibody test, could really help though, and I am optimistic about the capacity of the brilliant minds in our international pharmaceutical companies and universities to deliver.”