The Irish premier has warned that this week is the “calm before the storm” in the coronavirus pandemic.
Addressing Ireland in a rare live broadcast, Leo Varadkar said he expects the Covid-19 emergency to last beyond the end of the month – and could extend well into the summer.
Earlier on Tuesday, it was announced there were 292 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Ireland.
So far, there have been two deaths of people who have tested positive for the virus in Ireland.
Schools have already been closed and the public urged to exercise social distancing when out in public.
Mr Varadkar said he believes there will be 15,000 or more cases in the Republic by the end of the month, and more in the weeks afterwards.
The Taoiseach said while the virus cannot be stopped, all efforts are being made to “flatten the curve”, but warned this will only work if “everyone takes sustained action”, adding: “Nothing less will do.”
In years to come let them say of us when things were at their worst, we were at our bestLeo Varadkar
He expressed his pride in the nation’s healthcare workers.
“Not all superheroes wear capes – some wear scrubs and gowns,” he said.
“All of our healthcare workers need us to do the right thing in the weeks ahead.
“Our community services and hospitals are being tooled up.
“Essential equipment is on the way. Retired staff are returning to service. People are training for changed roles.
“This is the calm before the storm – before the surge.
“And when it comes – and it will come – never will so many ask so much of so few.
“We will do all that we can to support them.”
He described the situation as a global and national emergency caused by a pandemic the like of which had never been seen before.
“In years to come let them say of us when things were at their worst, we were at our best,” he said.
The Taoiseach said more restrictions of social interactions would be introduced.
He said the best strategies to deal with the virus focus on testing, contact tracing and social distancing.
“Many of you want to know when this will be over,” he said.
“The truth is we don’t know yet.
“It could go on for months into the summer, so we need to be sensible in the approach we take,” he said.
He added: “We are asking people to come together as a nation by staying apart from each other.”
He also warned that “at some point”, the elderly and those with a long-term illness will be advised to “stay at home for several weeks”.
“We call this ‘cocooning’ and it will save many lives… particularly the most vulnerable… the most precious in our society,” he said.
Turning to the financial cost of the pandemic, Mr Varadkar said the final bill may take years to pay.
“Everyone in our society must show solidarity in this time of national sacrifice,” he said.
“For those who have lost their jobs and had their incomes reduced temporarily, there must be help and understanding from those who can give it, particularly the banks, government bodies and utilities.
“We went into this crisis with a strong economy and the public finances in good order.
“We have the capacity and credit rating to borrow billions if we need to.
“I am confident that our economy will bounce back … but the damage will be significant and lasting. The bill will be enormous and it may take years to pay it.
“The Government has already signed off a three billion euro package for health, social welfare and business – we will take further action as needed.”
Viruses pay no attention to borders, race, nationality or gender. They are the shared enemy of all humanityLeo Varadkar
Mr Varadkar ended his address to the nation with a message of solidarity to those countries currently worst hit by Covid-19.
“To all of those across the world who have lost a loved one to this virus – we are with you,” he said.
“To all those living in the shadow of what is to come – we are with you.
“Viruses pay no attention to borders, race, nationality or gender.
“So it will be the shared enterprise of all humanity that finds a treatment and a vaccine that protects us.
“Tonight I send a message of friendship and of hope from Ireland to everyone around the world this Saint Patrick’s Day.”