Ireland cannot close off from the rest of the world and must prepare for the risk of imported cases of coronavirus, the Taoiseach has said.
It comes as the European Union sets out a plan on Thursday for member states to reopen their borders.
Leo Varadkar said the Government’s strategy is not one of mitigation, but of suppression when it comes to coronavirus and all risk cannot be eliminated.
He said: “Ireland’s goal is still trying to get the reproductive number to zero if possible by keeping the R number well below one. Unfortunately no strategy utterly insulates us from the risk of the virus re-emerging in our society.
“We share an open border with Northern Ireland which has unrestricted travel with Great Britain. Closing ourselves off is not an option for Ireland in the medium to long-term. We need to be prepared for the risk of imported cases as we reopen slowly to other countries.”
Mr Varadkar said the easing of restrictions has not enabled the virus to make a comeback “so far”, and the country is on course to fully reopen at the end of July.
“The Government is now conducting extensive work with the help of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) on revising phase three and phase four of the roadmap so we can have the country almost fully opened by the end of July, instead of the middle of August as originally planned,” he said.
Earlier, Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Covid-19 special envoy, told an Oireachtas committee he would be “surprised” if Ireland needs another phase of full lockdown.
He said: “I think there will be local areas where clusters would emerge and for a short period of time, movement restrictions would have to be imposed.
“I think the pattern for the future will be picking up outbreaks quickly due to a higher level of organisation.
“I personally believe a total lockdown is highly unlikely.”
He said the percentage of coronavirus deaths in Irish nursing homes is at the “upper end” of the scale compared to other countries, but added that may be down to more comprehensive reporting.
Minister for health Simon Harris said that the R number remains below one this week.
The R number, which measures how many people an infected person passes Covid-19 on to, is estimated to be between 0.4 and 0.8, Mr Harris told the Dail.
He added: “I’m also very encouragingly told there’s no evidence that it is increasing or indeed decreasing, but that it is staying remarkably stable.
“That is testament to the huge efforts of people in this country.
“We have continued to also see a reduction in the number of patients with Covid-19 in our hospitals – just 75 people in Irish hospitals today and 29 people in our intensive care units.”
He has also called for people to keep a record of all the people an individual meets for contact-tracing purposes.
Turning to face coverings, Mr Harris said the clear public health advice is that they should be worn on public transport and in enclosed indoor spaces such as shops.
“We will be launching a further public awareness campaign on this very shortly,” Mr Harris added.
“This is about behavioural change and I accept that the evidence and maybe even the messaging on this has changed over time.
“Perhaps it’s been confusing for people and perhaps it hasn’t gotten through in the clear way it needs to, so let’s be very clear starting from today, face coverings are recommended.”
Fianna Fail TD Mary Butler said 62% of Covid-19 deaths have happened in nursing homes and residential healthcare settings and she asked if that is high compared to other countries.
He replied: “Internationally, the figure for fatalities in residential care for older people is around 25%. If we break it down, country by country, Switzerland is 53%, Sweden is 49%, Scotland is 46% – so Ireland is at the upper end of the spectrum.
“I think there is a very honest counting of numbers of coronavirus cases.
“Ireland moved quickly on a number of issues like trying to get PPE to staff in nursing homes and restricting visits to nursing homes and recognising visitors were a primary way of bringing in the virus. I think Ireland was possibly the fastest country to have done this. At the moment, there is not something that Ireland has not done.”
He said it is proving a “huge challenge” worldwide to protect people in residential settings and nursing homes.
It came after another five Covid-19 deaths were reported on Wednesday, along with 19 new confirmed cases.
There have now been a total 1,695 Covid-19 related deaths in Ireland and 25,231 cases.
Meanwhile, the NHPET is meeting on Thursday to discuss the WHO’s guidance on face coverings.
Senior Government official Liz Canavan said: “We are aware of people’s questions and concerns about the use of face coverings.
“NPHET meets today and will review the World Health Organisation guidance on face coverings.
“They will also consider communications regarding the appropriate use of face coverings in community settings.”