Up to 85,000 Irish people could die if coronavirus meets some experts’ worst case fears, the Taoiseach has indicated.
Leo Varadkar warned that it iss possible that Ireland is facing events that “are unprecedented in modern times.”
It comes as three more people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in the Republic after coming into contact with other positive cases.
There are now 24 confirmed cases in the Republic. One of the new cases is a healthcare worker in the south.
Another new case is a woman in the south and the third is a woman in the west.
The HSE is working to identify contacts. There was relief that the new cases were not picked up in the community.
Asked about reports of weekend projections that up to 60pc of the population, or 1.9 million people in the Republic of Ireland, could be stricken by coronavirus, Mr Varadkar frankly said it was impossible to be definitive.
The Taoiseach said mathematical modelling to predict the trend of the virus will have to be continually updated to take account of fast-changing data. But he said what was learnt so far from other countries and other experience suggested that “up to 50pc or 60pc” of the country’s population could get coronavirus.
Mr Varadkar insisted that for the vast majority of people, who did get coronavirus, it would be very mild. He said many people might not even have any symptoms or know they had the virus at all.
But he added that it could be much harder on older people and those with existing health problems.
“There will be a significant proportion who will require critical care. And a percentage that we don’t know, we honestly don’t know yet – it could be less than 1pc, it could be as much as 3pc – or 3.4pc – mortality. We don’t know yet,” the Taoiseach warned.
“But when you’re talking about one, two, or three per cent, of half the population, those are very big figures,” Mr Varadkar added.
Based on the current population, this would indicate a potential death total in the region of 85,000 people.
However, the Government said that everything possible will be done to mitigate the impact of the virus in Ireland. Mr Varadkar said this country still has time to prevent a repeat of the spread which has been seen in Italy over recent weeks.
Mr Varadkar acknowledged that as the situation develops it will put a huge strain on the hospitals and the health services generally. He said that immediately some €430m was being put at the disposal of the Health Service Executive for the remainder of 2020 to meet extra staff and resource costs in the coronavirus fight.
In total a special package worth a total of €2.1bn had been agreed in special measures including business supports and this was likely to increase. Mr Varadkar said Ireland would use money put aside for Brexit supports and if necessary dig into the rainy day fund, the current budget surplus, and borrow more if necessary.
The country’s chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, said it was impossible to say how long this coronavirus crisis would continue.
“It’s going to last for at least months,” he told reporters.
Dr Holohan said much depended on whether new waves of the virus followed on from the original. In some cases people could have built up immunity against new waves of the virus which might mitigate effects – but all of that remained to be seen.
Mr Varadkar was speaking after the first meeting of a Cabinet subcommittee set up to direct the response to the coronavirus threat.
After that meeting he also met with all the other political party leaders to update them and get their views.
The Taoiseach said the authorities and government would do everything possible to continue with containment of the virus before moving on to other phases in the campaign. He warned against undue comparisons of Ireland with other countries, saying sometimes this country would go ahead of others, and sometimes act later, in specific measures against coronavirus.
He said scientific evidence and expert advice would guide Government – not the demands of business. He warned that some poorly thought-out measures can make things worse, arguing all measures have to be practical and possible, and it was most vital that citizens follow public health advice.
The “vast majority of this” won’t even know they have the illness, however “there will be a significant portion who require critical care”, the Taoiseach said.
“If you consider the numbers of people that could become very ill, even if our health service was twice the size it is now, we would struggle.”
“The vast majority of people who get covid 19 will not be because they attend a mass gathering,” he said.
“They will pick it up at home or through interactions with friends.”
He said that “life has to go on” and that people should try and “limit the number of social gatherings”.
The Government has cleared changes to the sick pay rules which will allow people get compensation for “self-isolation.” He said legislation for this should be put through the Dáil this week and the Seanad would be recalled to also sign off on it. He expected the new payment measures, which will extend to the self-employed, can apply from this Monday.
Mr Varadkar said he would engage with other EU leaders tomorrow via a television conference and stress the need for coordinated action, along with securing ongoing medical supplies. He signalled that he may seek changes to the practice of not banning incoming flights.
Asked about delays in talks to form a new government, Mr Varadkar stressed that the current Government would continue to deal with the situation. He argued that a quick change of government would only cause more confusion with the appointment of new ministers, advisers and administrative changes.
The Taoiseach also rejected the idea of a national interim government of all parties to deal with coronavirus.
He said this would by definition require two changes of government – with the eventual creation of a longer-term coalition – and that would only double the resultant confusion.