Country has 'fighting chance' to avoid another lockdown, but action needed now, says Cork expert

Country has 'fighting chance' to avoid another lockdown, but action needed now, says Cork expert

Large numbers of people have flocked to restaurants and bars offering outdoor dining in recent weeks. A decision on whether indoor dining can still resume as planned on July 5 is expected early this week. Credit: Damian Coleman

A CORK expert in infectious diseases has said that the time to act on the Delta variant is now, warning that the country has a “fighting chance” to avoid another lockdown but that this is “slipping through our fingers”.

The comments from Gerry Killeen came as it emerged that the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) is to meet today to consider its advice to Government on whether or not to further ease Covid-19 restrictions from July 5.

A decision on the return to indoor hospitality had initially been expected later this week, but ministers have faced intensifying calls from bar and restaurant owners to urgently provide clarity.

Prof. Gerry Killeen, AXA Research Chair in Applied Pathogen Ecology, UCC.
Prof. Gerry Killeen, AXA Research Chair in Applied Pathogen Ecology, UCC.

Mr Killeen, who is the AXA research chair of applied pathogen ecology at University College Cork, said he felt the country has a maximum of a week or two weeks to act on the Delta variant before the country is headed for another lockdown.

The infectious diseases expert said he also believes local lockdowns should be used to break the chain of infection, and said Cork would be on the list of areas he would like to see locked down.

“We have been pushing our luck for the past six weeks, we have two weeks max to do something or we are heading for another lockdown,” Mr Killeen said.

“We still have a fighting chance but it is slipping through our fingers,” the infectious diseases expert warned.

Decision expected on easing of restrictions 

It is expected that the Government will announce a decision on whether or not to delay the next planned round of relaxations around Covid-19 restrictions in Ireland within days.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin said yesterday that Cabinet would deliberate on the scheduled July 5 reopening of indoor hospitality in Ireland early this week.

In an interview with RTÉ, Mr Martin said a “steady” approach to the reopening of society had worked to date and he wanted to make sure that there would be “no going back” to forced closures.

He said there were a number of moving parts to the decision, including the spread of the Delta variant of Covid-19 in Ireland.

He said whether the green light will be given to administering hundreds of thousands of surplus AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines to younger age cohorts in Ireland would also be an “important factor”.

Mr Martin did not rule out the prospect of the reopening proceeding, but with more robust infection control measures in place.

He said “various scenarios” could emerge in how hospitality could operate in the weeks ahead.

Concerns over opening indoor dining 

However, on the subject of indoor dining, Mr Killeen said he felt it was a promise that could never be delivered this summer.

“If we open indoor dining, it will be too late, we will be stuck with the Delta variant,” he told the Echo.

Mr Killeen said he was also concerned about the lack of information sharing from the Government in terms of the Covid outbreaks.

Comparing Ireland to Australia, Mr Killeen said on the other side of the world, you could find the exact location of an outbreak, whereas here, he said you can’t even be sure of the location of an outbreak in the county you live in.

“Everything is word of mouth, very little information is shared from Nphet and the Government and I do find that worrying.”

In terms of the Delta variant, Mr Killeen said it is containable if we worked hard on doing so.

The UCC expert said the country needs to forget about the summer and concentrate on the autumn.

“We have good weather, we should be making the most of it and working towards reopening the schools and colleges in the autumn.”

Mr Killeen said ultimately the country needs to make choices.

“It can get worse, but it can also get better. Be sensible and look towards 2022.”

Views of Cork publicans and restaurateurs 

Meanwhile, with a decision imminent on the re-opening of indoor hospitality, Cork Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) chairperson Michael O’Donovan said he is hoping for the green light from the Government to serve food and drink indoors.

“It has been a very frustrating week, there have been a lot of mixed messages from the Government,” he said.

Michael O'Donovan of the Castle Inn, 99 South Main Street Cork City. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Michael O'Donovan of the Castle Inn, 99 South Main Street Cork City. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Mr O’Donovan said there were a lot of pubs in rural areas depending on the staycation market for the next 10 weeks and any delay would be a serious blow.

“Many of these places depend on the summer months to survive the winter and any delay is a major worry or concern to them.”

The Cork VFI chair said he had suggested to the Government that the gardaí should be given temporary powers to be able to close any premises that are not following the guidelines if it would offer reassurances that all establishments were acting properly.

While Mr O’Donovan said the majority of his colleagues are gunning to open their doors, he said they also were wary of another lockdown and felt it would be better to wait another few weeks rather than open temporarily only to close again.

“Everybody would prefer to stay closed than open and close again, but we need to know for stock orders and staff. There are employees on the PUP payment and that is not simple to come off and go back on, there are procedures and forms.

“We need to be given direction, we will accept the decision and move on,” he told The Echo.

Cork Chair of the Restaurant Association of Ireland and restaurateur Mike Ryan said he believed it was grossly unfair the way the hospitality sector was being treated.

“If multi-national companies were treated the same way indigenous countries are being treated, there would be a serious backlash. There is no understanding of the operations and no consideration for the extremely labour intensive systems we have in place.”

Mr Ryan noted that from next month, Ireland is set to be the only country in Europe without indoor dining.

The Restaurant Association of Ireland also released a statement on Sunday supporting comments from infectious disease expert, Dr Paddy Mallon, that a two-week delay to reopening would not have a serious impact on the disease.

“Those in decision-making positions are embarking on a critical week. The decisions they are about to take will impact the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people,” it said.

“The severity and sacrifices of the past 16 months will have been for nothing unless we make a measured, informed, and sequential return to everyday life. The government’s existing plan provides for that. The vaccine programme is doing its job.

“Those of us in hospitality are ready for a safe return to indoor dining.”

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