There is now a total of 769 confirmed cases of Covid-19 north and south of Ireland, and tragically there have been 4 deaths so far. Many of these infections could have been prevented in my view.
Many of these people are likely to have contracted the illness when flights were still arriving from northern Italy into Ireland, when the advice from the government to asymptomatic people returning from affected areas was to go about their daily lives as normal and when there was no medical risk analysis at airports for people returning from affected areas.
On each of these points I called on the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health to take fast and effective action. On each of these points they refused to do it in time. In relation to travel from affected areas, the government’s policy was not determined by best medical advice in my view but by EU “Single Market” policy. I believe the government were shockingly slow in closing down Ireland to affected areas and isolating those returning from those areas. I am not alone in stating this, many health professionals have also been critical of this aspect of the government’s actions.
China, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea have all taken a different approach. They have sought to bring the spread of Covid 19 to an end. Our government to date has not. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have openly stated that the measures they have undertaken will not stop the spread of the virus. They seek instead to reduce the transmission below its natural exponential growth rates.
Last week I called on the government to start testing asymptomatic people who had been in contact with people who tested positive for the virus. It has been known for a number of weeks now that some people are contagious before they show the symptoms. Testing people before they infect others allows you get ahead of the virus and actually halt transmission. A study in Vò in northern Italy, which saw the country’s first death from COVID-19, points to the danger of asymptomatic carriers.
All 3,300 inhabitants of the town were tested after 6 March when 90 people were found to be infected – including testing of people with no symptoms. The research identified at least six asymptomatic people who did tested positive for the Covid-19 but who would have unwittingly infected other people without the testing. The experience of Vò points to the absolute importance of testing. For days now, there have been no new cases of COVID-19.
This approach has worked in other countries also. The WHO have urged countries to “test, test, test.
Up until this week, in Ireland, you could not get tested even if you had the symptoms. In response to my question the Taoiseach stated to me that in his view, it does not work and that he would not test asymptomatic people connected to the virus. This is a mistake and I believe is another example of a government too far behind the curve to stop this.
I understand the government are in a phenomenally difficult position. The enormity of the health and economic challenge and the unknown nature of the virus makes tackling it a gargantuan task. For sure there is much important work being done now. Our health service personnel have pitched in heroically.
On Thursday the 12th of March the government finally stepped up a gear. On St Patrick’s Day the Taoiseach gave a speech to the state. The tone of this speech was well pitched and as a result it was well received by many. However soothing words are no replacement for life and death actions.
Many understandably, have been slow to critique the government. This maybe motivated by a sense of solidarity and the need for everyone to pull together. I 100% believe in the need to pull together. But its really important that we don’t confuse solidarity for undue deference. Scrutiny, oversight and holding the government to account is more important now than ever.
Many have compared our government to the British and the US Governments. Comparing ourselves to the bottom of the class will not save lives.
We need to compare ourselves to the top of the class, to Singapore, Hongkong and to South Korea.
This is a war and it demands a war time response. In Italy, its the equivalent of a 747 crashing day after day. We are starting with less ICU and fewer ventilators per capita than Italy. In my view the government are not doing enough fast enough. We owe it to the weak and the vulnerable, we owe it to our health care workers and we owe it to ourselves to get this right, now.
Peadar Tóibin is leader of Aontú and a TD for for Meath West