From top: Chair of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, Independent TD Michael McNamara; Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly
At the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, chair of the committee Independent TD Michael McNamara asked the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly about his earlier repeated claims that Ireland is at a “tipping point” and that we could be looking at another national lockdown.
Mr McNamara said there was no reasoning for Ireland to endure another lockdown and later told the minister:
“I really would caution about talk of another lockdown because there is a risk of unleashing a whirlwind. That’s my personal view. I really am not convinced that you will bring the country with you on that.”
They had this exchange:
Michael McNamara: “At that time [when the strategy was to flatten the curve] when restrictions were introduced, numbers were rising from 170 in hospitals to 440. From 50 in ICU to 80. Four months ago, on the 29th of April, there were 1,185 cases in hospital in Ireland, of which 120 were in critical care units. Three times today you told us that we were looking at a complete lockdown and that we were at tipping point. We’ve been hearing about a lot of tipping points, we’ve heard about tipping points now since June.
“We were also told today, by the HSE, that there were 22 patients admitted to hospital with ICU and six, sorry 22 admitted to hospital with Covid-19 and six in ICU. Now, I accept that for those 22 patients and their family and, in particular, the six in ICU and their families, that’s it an incredibly worrying and stressful time. But what I don’t understand, minister, is how you can possibly talk about a national lockdown, given those figures. And given that our health system coped with 1,185 four months ago.
“So I want to know: what is the strategy here? What are we hoping to achieve, if not that our health system is not overrun, because [Acting Chief Medical Officer] Dr [Ronan] Glynn earlier this week, I note accepted that we cannot eliminate the virus and that seems to be the general. I accept that there are those who are calling for it to be eliminated but he said that he doesn’t think we can eliminate it here. There’s a growing acceptance that you can’t eliminate it and if you do, what do you do then? You open up and you go through the same cycle. You’re talking about lockdowns and you’ve said, a couple of times, that they work.
“Argentina has been in a lockdown for six months, figures are spiralling, Earlier this week we had the WHO on RTE News saying that lockdowns don’t work. It was [WHO’s regional director for Europe] Hans Kluge who is the European Director of the WHO. So where are we going? What is the strategy?”
Stephen Donnelly: “Thank you, chair. So, first of all, you’re absolutely right, I have mentioned ‘a tipping point’ several times. But it’s not me making that up. I’m saying it because that is NPHET’s position. And I think it’s natural, chair, that we all become fatigued with this…”
McNamara: “No, I’m not…”
Donnelly: “People have been through an awful lot…”
McNamara: “How can you…”
Donnelly: “And the reason, chair, that I am emphasising it and re-emphasising it is because we need to be on our guard. In terms of your question on do lockdowns work? We know they work. Because we did one here and it worked. They did them across Europe and they worked. If the purpose is to flatten the curve, we locked the country down, the curve was flattened and that is the experience of most of the countries we’ve looked at…”
McNamara: “We have no idea how many people are unable to bear…You talked about causing unnecessary anxiety by using the word ‘trampoline’ and I very much accept your explanation. But talking about another lockdown in circumstances where we have, and again, I repeat, six people in ICU. And I regret each and every one of them desperately. I lost a very close relative of my own earlier this year and I know no matter what age somebody is at, you know, you don’t want to lose somebody close to you. Of course you don’t.
“But we talk about national priorities. We have six people in ICU. Twenty-two in hospital with Covid-19. At the height of this, we had over 1,100 people in hospital and 120 in ICU. And you’re talking about a lockdown again. Have you any idea of the effect that that’s having. Forget about the economy for a moment, but we can’t forget about it for too long because something has to fund our healthcare system. They don’t fund themselves in any country in the world. Have you any idea the effect that’s having on mental health, on people’s psyche, on people’s spirit in what’s happening in the country now? How can you possibly talk about a lockdown?
“Given the figures, it flies in the face of reason. And we all have eyes, we all have a capacity to reason. We all live in a post-Enlightment world.”
Donnelly: “Thank you, chair. Of course, I do understand the implications which is why I keep saying it. It’s why we brought in the measures last week. It’s because we must suppress the virus in our community, a huge national priority has been getting the schools open, for many of the reasons you say. And that’s now happening…because the transmission has been reduced. But chair, I think your question is fair, in that you’re saying ‘look the number of cases is going up and we know it’s going up very quickly’. So, for example, the key measure that the public health experts use is the number of cases over the last two weeks per 100,000…”
McNamara: “Sorry, the number of detected cases, we’ve no idea really how many, what’s happening outside of detection levels. Is that a fair…”
Donnelly: “We do. There is a study done estimating that the total number is about 40,000 to 50,000 versus the 27,000/28,000, we’ve…”
McNamara: “There are other studies that are being prepared that may or may, anyway…”
Donnelly: “The ones that the experts talk to me about are that one. We’ve detected probably a bit over half of the total cases. But chair this figure that they use. We were at three per 100,000 a while ago. Two weeks ago we were at 18 per 100,000 and today we’re 30 per 100,000. So let’s be very clear. This virus is rising again quickly in our community. Now I think you’ve very fairly asked, well how is that linked to hospitalisations. Because the cases are high but the hospitalisations, thank god, are low.
“Go back and look at the profile of what happened the first time. And what you’ll find is that this point in the pattern, as the cases were in and around where they are now and rising rapidly, hospitalisations were also very low. So the unambiguous message and advice from public health, chair, is that death will follow high numbers of cases. So what we don’t want to do is wait…for the hospital system to be overrun. We don’t want to wait for fatalities to go up and up and up before we act. We have to act first and that’s what we’re doing.”
McNamara: “But, minister, that line, that deaths will follow an increase in detected cases, it hasn’t happened across north America. It hasn’t happened, thankfully to date at least, across Europe.”
Donnelly: “Chair the situation in north America, with the greatest of respect, is not one we need to be looking at to learn lessons from…”
McNamara: “I’m not saying…that Donald Trump is doing a good job and please don’t mischaracterise me, I’m not…what I’m saying is that the increase in detected cases has not been accompanied…and it’s a trend that’s going on for some time in north America and the continent. It hasn’t been accompanied by an increase in hospitalisations and deaths. Thankfully, that’s all I’m saying.”
McNamara: “Minister, I just join with you in asking people to behave responsibly to take personal responsibility for their actions to adhere to the measures that have been outlined but speaking personally, I really would caution about talk of another lockdown because there is a risk of unleashing a whirlwind. That’s my personal view. I really am not convinced that you will bring the country with you on that…that’s not a committee view, that’s a personal view.”
Earlier: K Clubbed