DUBLIN — Barely a month after Ireland led Europe in suppressing COVID-19, the infection’s spread has reached a record pace and forced the nation back into its tightest lockdown regime.
While the government pins its policy U-turn on the arrival of a more infectious variant from the U.K., public health experts primarily blame last month’s relaxation of restrictions in pursuit of Prime Minister Micheál Martin’s blueprint for “a meaningful Christmas.”
Infectious disease officials argued in vain to stop that plan, which was unveiled in late November when Ireland was emerging from a six-week lockdown as the only member of the EU27 fully listed as an “orange” travel destination. First the government reopened shops, restaurants and food-serving pubs. Then, two weeks later, it permitted extended families to gather together in the run-up to Christmas. This increased socializing was supposed to run to the end of the holiday period Wednesday.
Much of the Irish media heralded the relaxation as wise to give long-shuttered businesses a financial shot in the arm.
Yet even as families fanned out nationwide to huddle in relatives’ homes starting December 18, positive test results surged.
On Christmas Eve, shops and social venues were hurriedly closed once again. Almost simultaneously, testing labs confirmed that the U.K. variant had arrived. It has since grown to represent a quarter of new cases.
Hospitals have reported 23 new outbreaks and nursing homes 22, including one facility in Limerick where eight residents died over the holiday period.
“This U.K. variant is unlike anything we have dealt with in this country so far,” Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said Wednesday as he entered a Cabinet meeting that approved a new slate of lockdown measures.
Those included a shutdown of construction sites effective Friday night and an extension of school closures until February. The government previously ordered the reimposition of movement restrictions on households to within 5 kilometers of their own homes.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee, who took part in the Cabinet meeting by video link, announced that she has tested positive for coronavirus — the second minister in Ireland’s 15-member Cabinet to catch the disease.
McEntee, who is five months’ pregnant with her first child, reassured the public in a tweet that health data indicates “pregnant women or their babies are not at a higher risk if we get COVID-19.”
“At the same time, I urge everyone to follow public health advice and stay at home,” she wrote. “If you think you’re developing symptoms, no matter how small, act as though you have COVID. We all know the seriousness of the situation.”
Ireland confirmed 6,110 new cases Monday, 5,325 on Tuesday, and a record 7,836 on Wednesday. Forty fatalities so far this week have taken Ireland’s pandemic death total to 2,300. Newly diagnosed infections over the past two weeks have exceeded 40,000 – a full third of Ireland’s total from the past 10 months.
Philip Nolan, who leads pandemic modeling for Ireland’s National Public Health Emergency Team, said the true infection rate in society was probably about 25 percent higher.
Nolan said positive tests, cases and hospitalizations are doubling every seven to 10 days.
“We can stop this, but it’s essential that each and every one of us plays our part to turn the tide,” he said. “Stay home.”
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‘Meaningful Christmas’ leads to new coronavirus crisis for Ireland The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Politico.