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Harris sets new target for when some coronavirus restrictions could be lifted

HEALTH Minister Simon Harris has said the coronavirus restrictions can start to be lifted once the rate of transmission slows.

A day after the restrictions were extended by three weeks, Mr Harris offered fresh hope that some measures can be loosened once the reproduction rate of the virus – the R0 – falls below one.

An R0 of less than one suggests that, on average, an infected person is passing the virus on to less than one other person. If this is maintained, the virus will eventually die out.

Key to reducing the transmission rate is reducing the number of people coming into contact with infected cases and Mr Harris identified R0, which currently stands at about 1 in Ireland, as the key indicator for when restrictions can start to be loosened.

“So the closer you can get that to zero, and the more the virus is suppressed, that means the more you freed up your ICU capacity,” Mr Harris said.

“And it does mean that if you did see an increase, which inevitably you’re going to when you lift your restrictions, you’d have the capacity within your ICU, within your hospitals, within your general practice, within your testing system.”

Mr Harris said there is no manual for which restrictions would be lifted first and that the Government would observe how the partial lifting of restrictions in some European countries works in the coming weeks.

Some shops will open in Austria next week, while Denmark will partially reopen schools. “We will have the benefit of being able to watch kind of what others are doing,” Mr Harris said.

Mr Harris said the loosening of restrictions would involve a “blended mix of measures” and would not be a case of start where the restrictions were first introduced.

“When we do it we’ll have to be honest with people that we’re going to do it, we’re going to monitor it very carefully and if it doesn’t work, we’re going to have to revert,” he said.

Mr Harris said he hoped the backlog of testing will clear next week. He said Ireland has more testing capacity than most other EU countries and testing per head of population is the fifth highest in the EU.

“Between 25,000 to 35,000 tests have been sent to Germany. It is our hope and expectation that any backlog will be cleared by next week,” he said.

Mr Harris was speaking at an event in the Department of Health to raise awareness of the mental health supports and resources available to people who may be struggling under the current restrictions.

“The difficulty for everyone in this country is that we are not going back to normal life in May,” he said.

“It is going to be a new normal. I don’t want to worry or upset people but we need to work as a people to get to a better place.

“I’m concerned with the toll of restrictions on people’s mental health. It is not normal that you can’t go out and about or that you can’t visit your family in Easter Sunday. These are abnormal things that we are asking people to do and it sucks and it is challenging.”