The Minister for Health has said that if there is a second wave of Covid-19 the Government will have "to consider the very blunt weapon that is a lockdown" but it is doing everything it can to avoid it.

Stephen Donnelly told the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that the focus from now until Christmas will be on suppressing Covid-19 while reopening society.

In relation to the current restrictions in Co Kildare, the minister said the National Public Health Emergency Team will meet tomorrow and make recommendations.

He said he did not want to pre-empt the outcome of that meeting.

Mr Donnelly said that while the restrictions in Kildare are working the difficult question for NPHET to consider is if the infection rate has been reduced enough as lifting restrictions could cause it to increase again.

Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn told the committee that the restrictions in the county are being kept under "close review".

Speaking about measures introduced around sporting events last week, Minister Donnelly defended the action taken by NPHET.

"It would have been quite reasonable for them to say that for the next three weeks in order to protect the country and lives we simply have to stop sports - to their great credit that didn't do that.

"We are at a tipping point. We could be looking at another national lockdown. We have to take this deadly seriously."

Mr Donnelly stood over his use of the word tipping point and talking about a new lockdown saying the number of cases has risen sharply and "death will follow high numbers of cases".

He said the Department of Health is preparing a comprehensive winter plan and many measures are already in place.

The minister added that if there is a second wave of Covid-19, healthcare services will be severely curtailed again and that is why it is so important to suppress the virus.

Labour TD Duncan Smith said it was deeply concerning that the minister had turned up without a detailed plan.

He said there was no mention of Direct Provision, meat plants or how travel restrictions would work.

Mr Smith said it was up to the minister to deliver a road map saying "we require leadership on this".

He asked if there is an outbreak in Swords or Donabate in Dublin would all of the city and county be shut down while Ashbourne in Co Meath - a few kilometres away from the outbreak - remained open?

Mr Donnelly said the plan is being worked on and will be more detailed and comprehensive than before.

The minister said the median turnaround time for coronavirus testing is 1.2 days.

He added that there have been 23 inspections of meat plants so far this month and that 22 of these were unannounced.

Earlier, the Acting Chief Medical Officer said that NPHET is keeping the coronavirus restrictions in Co Kildare under "close review".

The Government reimposed restrictions on the county, along with Laois and Offaly, earlier this month following a spike in case of Covid-19.

While the restrictions on Laois and Offaly were lifted last Friday, they were extended for two weeks for Kildare.

Dr Ronan Glynn told the committee that if a point comes where NPHET feels it can recommend lifting the restrictions, it will.

He explained that NPHET wants Kildare to be realigned with the rest of the country as soon as possible.

Dr Glynn said the cases of Covid-19 in Co Kildare were driven by clusters in meat processing facilities, but he said people who work in these plants interact with people all over the county.

He said that they had to move quickly to prevent community transmission, and praised the the people of Kildare, who he said had prevented widespread community transmission.

The acting CMO was responding to Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless, who said confidence and moral was at a significant low in Co Kildare.

Dr Glynn also said he hopes that Ireland is not on the cusp of a second wave in this pandemic.

In response to a question from Fianna Fáil TD Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Dr Glynn said that while he hopes the recent increase in cases is not a second wave, there is "no doubt" that there has been a "deteriorating situation over the past couple of months".

Dr Glynn said that it is no surprise there have been more cases of the virus since restrictions eased and that "by the very nature of their lives", he said we will see more cases in younger people.

He said he is increasingly concerned by the overall number of new cases.

Dr Glynn said at the "heart" of the latest restrictions, they are asking people to cut down their "discretionary social contacts".

"If we don't cut down the number of people that each of us comes into contact with, there is no doubt that the number of cases will continue to rise.

"If that happens, it will inevitably lead to cases in older people and those who are medically vulnerable," he said.

Dr Glynn said that if the numbers continue to rise, he would be concerned about the impact that would have in terms of hospitalisations, admissions to critical care and mortality. 

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Health Service Executive CEO Paul Reid said eliminating coronavirus is not realistic and plans are no longer centred around a second surge, but around managing the peaks and troughs of the virus that are beginning to emerge.

He told the committee that the number of testing centres around the country has been increased to deal with the recent increase spike in cases. 

Mr Reid said that when they were dealing with ten cases a day, 48 centres was not the best use of teams, but they have now stepped back up to 28 centres . 

In response to Fine Gael TD Jennifer Carroll MacNeill's question about what would happen if there is an outbreak in a school, Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry said it is inevitable that there will be cases in schools

Dr Henry said that public health departments will carry out a risk assessment approach and will look at the individual characteristics of the school, rates of community transmission and the capability of the school to adhere to infection control and prevention measures.

He said that it is not a "box ticking" experience is an individual assessment based on a set of principles by public health experts. 

Dr Henry said that one of the challenges is distinguishing between Covid and non-Covid illnesses within children.

Mr Reid also told the committee that work is under way on a plan to get through the winter months and 2021, which will range from different approaches aiming to keep people out of hospitals and investments in homecare packages. 

He said another support would be using the private hospitals in a different way to how they were used in the first phase of the pandemic.

Additional reporting Colman O'Sullivan