The Minister for Health has said he does not envisage the wearing of face masks to be made mandatory in Ireland.

Simon Harris told the Dáil that advice on the wearing of face masks is expected to be issued to the public following consideration by the National Public Health Emergency Team. 

He said other countries have given public health advice on the wearing of masks and he expects that to happen here.

"I do not envisage making it mandatory, but advice will be issued so that people can make informed decisions," he told the Dáil.

He said it will be considered at tomorrow's meeting of NPHET, adding: "If the evidence changes and the experts believes it needs to be done it will be done." 

Mr Harris also told the Dáil that the reproductive rate - or 'R' number - of the virus has remained stable over the past week, staying at between 0.5 and 0.8.

He said that modelling work on the outbreak indicates that if the virus had continued to spread as quickly as it did in its early stages, more than 2,200 people could have been seriously ill in critical care units at this time.

Mr Harris said if the trend had continued, more than 4,800 people would have lost their lives due to the virus.

He said their modelling suggests that Irish people have saved 3,500 lives as a result of their efforts in complying with restrictions.

Mr Harris said up to 40 people per day are being hospitalised, with three to four being admitted to ICU, and if we want to give the country the best chance of success against the virus, "we must continue the work".

The minister warned that "extreme vigilance" will be required to contained the effects of Covid-19.

He said he understands the fatigue people are feeling with the restrictions that are in place, but warned people must "guard against any sense of invincibility".

Ahead of the planned announcement of a roadmap that will outline plans to ease restrictions, Mr Harris said we cannot act unless the disease is being suppressed.

"We have every chance of success, but we have got to get the timing right. Moving too quickly would set us up for failure, thaw would have devastating consequences," he said.

Read more:
Live coronavirus updates as they happen
Latest coronavirus stories
Country not out of danger yet - Taoiseach

Mr Harris also said that more than 200 staff have been redeployed from the HSE to private nursing homes, which he said was up from the figure of 61 last week.

He said his department has also reached agreement with home care providers to redeploy staff to nursing homes.

The Minister said a suggestion from Sinn Féin health spokesperson Louise O'Reilly to deploy a consultant geriatrician to nursing homes "sounds reasonable" and he will seek expert advice on that.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly called for non-Covid healthcare to get going as soon as possible.

He raised the case of five-year-old boy from Wicklow named Calum, who has Downs syndrome and some associated medical conditions.

Mr Donnelly said Calum needed an MRI to treat his juvenile arthritis, but the scan is scheduled for next year, two years after it was requested.

He said the boy is in pain, but cannot say where the pain is as he is pre-verbal. Doctors have started treatment without the MRI to provide what care they can. He added that Calum has not had his required twice-weekly physio for six weeks.

Mr Donnelly asked why urgent care in community was not happening now.

Mr Harris said the authorities had been preparing for the pandemic to take a certain course of action, but that an "awful surge" had not been reached.

He said however the disease would be around for some time. He also said they now needed to act to provide for non-Covid care alongside Covid-19 care. He said some of this was starting already.

Concern over transfer of patients to nursing homes

Ms O'Reilly also questioned whether outbreaks of Covid-19 in nursing homes are the result of a decision to move elderly patients into the homes from hospitals in the early stages of the pandemic.

She told the Dáil that she lost an elderly relative, who was in a nursing home, to the disease.

"His family and others are convinced that Covid came in to the nursing home from patients who were transferred initially," she said.

Minister Harris said the motive was to move vulnerable people "out of the surge setting, out of the danger zone, in to a safe place".

He said he did not believe that this resulted in the outbreaks in residential home settings.

Ms O'Reilly also told the minister that he needed to "stop blaming people for the fact that they are starting to think about relaxation" and accused him of offering "mixed messages", particularly in comment about the re-opening of schools.

Questions over cost of private hospital leases

Rise TD Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Health for more clarity on the cost of leasing private hospitals, saying Ireland was paying four times as much per bed as they are in the UK.

Mr Murphy said he wanted a detailed breakdown of the costs to see if there was "profiteering going on".

In response, Minister Harris said payment would be on a cost-only open book model. He said hospitals would only be reimbursed for the operating costs incurred during the period.

The minister said it is not possible to give a precise cost estimate, but he said the final cost would be verified by independent accountants.

He said this will continue to be examined by an Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee in due course.

Additional reporting: Sandra Hurley, Aisling Kenny