15 April 2020 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Michael Fisher

A Monaghan native who is an international expert on viral infection has said the social distancing and staying at home measures introduced by the government to stop the spread of coronavirus have helped to reduce drastically the number of community-based cases.

RCSI Professor of International Health and Tropical Medicine Sam McConkey from Killeevan said two more measures could help to eliminate the virus within six to eight weeks, if that was to be made the priority. This would involve the enforcement of a two-week quarantine for people travelling from areas affected by Covid-19 such as England and Italy, as well as an all-island approach to the problem.

Professor McConkey said Wuhan in China where the virus is thought to have originated at the end of December has already achieved a Covid-free area. He added that New Zealand, which has similar attributes to Ireland, was also aiming to achieve a similar status, which he believed Ireland could aim to emulate.

He pointed out that New Zealand prevented all non-New Zealand passport holders from entering the country, and forcibly quarantined all domestic passport holders coming in. But quarantining was a very harsh restriction, he felt.

In a podcast with the Business Post, he said if the virus was eliminated, then the social distancing restrictions would largely disappear. He added that he would then be free to go to visit his elderly mother back home in Co Monaghan.

Professor McConkey said the Covid-free priority approach would require politicians in Northern Ireland working together in the Executive and then working together with the Irish government. He said that could be an insurmountable obstacle. He said he was becoming increasingly pessimistic that an all-island approach is possible or feasible as it’s difficult to get political consensus there.

He pointed out that healthcare in the North is a devolved matter for Stormont and is not controlled directly from Westminster. There is a Minister for Health Robin Swann and they have got some freedom and autonomy around health in particular.

The people in Northern Ireland could choose what strategy they want to follow and it did not have to be identical to England; at the moment Scotland has a different approach, he said. That was not an absolute problem. However the relationship of trust that would allow the political leadership in Northern Ireland to work together effectively and also with the Republic on a common health policy did not exist at the moment, in his view, although it was an improvement on the situation six months ago.

The alternative to elimination of the virus within a few weeks is partial suppression. Professor McConkey explained that this would involve continuing to protect the very elderly and Covid-vulnerable in an ongoing way while the restrictions were gradually relaxed over a much longer period. This would enable young people who are less prone to the virus to go back to work first and for some restaurants and pubs to be re-opened, where people would be 2m apart.

This could also apply as a ‘halfway house’ to places of worship. Small building sites outdoors suxh as a house extension where construction workers could be suitably distanced would also be permitted. A sport such as golf that takes place in the open air and with small numbers of participants might also be allowed.

He said both options (elimination and partial suppression) would be dependent on achieving testing for coronavirus and contact tracing that could take place within a matter of hours.

That would be possible with some of the mobile phone technology that is currently available, although it would be dependent on users giving their permission for location data to be released by the phone companies.

Professor McConkey said he was delighted and pleased that the vast majority of Irish people had been observing the restrictions, for example the distancing in supermarkets. But it would be very challenging, especially for young children, if all these measures had to be kept up for another six or nine months.

• Professor Sam McConkey

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