Random testing will be introduced at Irish airports to help boost the fight against Covid-19, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said.
The Government is expected to sign off on its the introduction when the Cabinet meets on Tuesday.
It is one of a number of issues to be discussed as part of ongoing measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic when the Coalition decides whether to further ease social restrictions on August 10th.
The Cabinet is also awaiting NPHET’s recommendation before deciding on whether to allow the re-opening of pubs that do not serve food.
On Sunday, the Minister said “the number one focus is getting the schools reopened”.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio at lunchtime, he added “decisions could be made if NPHET deem them necessary in order to keep the opening of schools on track”.
On international travel, he said: “We’re introducing random testing at the airports and an increased public health presence and we’re examining other options for further restrictions on non-essential travel because… the international situation is becoming more volatile”.
He said that even in Spain, Belgium, Germany, France and parts of England “it is a very serious situation”.
Mr Donnelly also said “the [passenger] locator form is becoming electronic and we’re bulking up the team that chases up on that.”
NPHET last month recommended the introduction of random testing at ports and airports.
The public health team made the proposal for asymptomatic testing in a memo to Government.
Details of how the measure will be introduced, the number of tests to be carried out each day and if flights from particular countries would be targeted are expected to be clarified following the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
Mr Donnelly said Ireland had “the most restrictive and green list of any country in the EU, which is helping obviously”.
Uncertainty over pubs
The Minister said publicans asked a “very fair question” as to why they were being single out” because retail and other sections of business were open.
But public health officials had said international experience showed that when pubs reopened the number of new cases went up.
“It did not seem to be the case with restaurants, for example, which is why they advise the restaurants could open… with the restrictions in place.”
He stressed again that he did not want to pre-judge the NPHET recommendations. Caution was required, “given that we now have a five day average of 44 [new cases] which has gone up, and we have about 80 cases in the last 14 days where they’re from so-called community transmission meaning [and] it isn’t clear where they came from”.
He noted 90 per cent of cases were an “entirely domestic situation” and not from overseas travel.
The Covid-tracing app had been downloaded by 1.5 million people and was making a big difference, the North and launched their app and the two governments were working to ensure that information in terms of contact tracing would be shared.
They were also bulking up the team that chases passengers through the locator form which is going online.
Mr Donnelly said there had been significant clusters in the midlands, including factory outbreaks in Kildare, with one factory closed as a result, as well as direct provision outbreaks in Kildare and Laois.
“We’re looking at an outbreak in Clare and a new cluster in Limerick.”
He said what concerned public health doctors more is community transmission, where “people are coming forward, are testing positive and we don’t know where they contracted the disease”.
On Saturday, there were no further deaths related to Covid-19 in the State reported but there were 45 new cases confirmed.
This means the death toll from the virus stands at 1,763 while the total number of cases in the State rises to 26,109.
Dr Ronan Glynn, acting Chief Medical Officer in the Department of Health, said: “Over the last five days we have seen an average of 44 cases a day. This trend is clearly concerning, and now is the time to ensure you and your families are making every effort to keep each other safe.”
He reiterated advice on keeping gatherings to a minimum, allowing no more than 10 others into your home.
“Do not organise or attend house parties,” he stressed, adding restaurants must enforce a limit of 50 people – including staff – on their premises at any one time.
The Cabinet’s decision on whether phase four can start on August 10th is due on Tuesday.
Under phase four of the reopening roadmap, pubs that do not serve food would be allowed to reopen and gatherings of up to 100 people indoors and 500 outdoors would be permitted.
The Licensed Vintners Association (LVA) said the Government’s decision to wait until next week to decide whether pubs should reopen the following Monday was “deeply unhelpful” and “adding real stress” to publicans and staff.
Donall O’Keefe, chief executive of the LVA, which represents publicans in Dublin, said guidelines for reopening pubs were supposed to be published three weeks ago.
“They were then meant to be published this week. They weren’t. So we now have pubs across the country having to guess if they will be able to open on August 10th and also having to guess what rules will then apply to them,” he said.
“This isn’t conducive to effective preparation. We see absolutely no reason why the guidelines couldn’t have been published earlier.”
Mr O’Keefe said by August 10th pubs will have had “no income” for just under 150 days, which is more than 40 per cent of the year.