Increasing testing and contact tracing, as well as a reduction in the number of new cases, are crucial to Ireland's ability to ease the severe restrictions that have been in place since March. The coming week will be a vitally important one as efforts continue to achieve these aims amid increasing public frustration, writes Orla O'Donnell.

The latest figures from the Health Service Executive show there are just over 1,000 people in the country's acute hospitals with confirmed or suspected cases of Covid-19 and 133 of them are in intensive care.

The number of new confirmed cases of the virus has risen by less than 5% on seven of the last eight days, but hundreds of new cases continue to be announced daily and more than 1000 were announced over the weekend.

Some, but not all, of the new cases are related to outbreaks in the country's nursing homes. The number of such cases is likely to go up over the coming days as the increasing tests carried out over the past week feed into the system.

Being able to control the outbreaks in nursing homes and prevent new ones would be a priority for health authorities if restrictions are to be eased.

The total number of deaths linked to Covid-19 currently stands at 1,102. At last Friday's briefing, health officials said nursing home residents accounted for almost half the deaths so far.

An increased ability to test and to trace contacts will also be an important aspect of loosening the restrictions. 

But it's understood an ability to be able to carry out 100,000 tests a week is not a prerequisite for easing the current "lockdown" next Tuesday.

HSE Chief Executive Paul Reid said yesterday that despite some "constructive tensions", a plan to ramp up testing and tracing capabilities had been agreed with the Department of Health.

A shared paper will go to the Cabinet, which will see a plan to increase from a capacity of 10,000 tests a day, to 12,000 and finally to 15,000 a day by the third week in May.

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The gradual broadening of the case definition to take in more symptoms and allow more people to be tested is to be aligned with the ramping up of testing. 

Mr Reid also announced that a mobile phone app to assist with the process of contact tracing will be introduced here next month.  

He said people would have to opt in to use the app and engagement was ongoing with the Data Protection Commissioner.  

He said issues around user acceptance, IOS/Android Integration and Bluetooth technology are also being examined based on what has been well received in other European countries. 

He warned that Covid-19 was going to be with the Irish health service for a longer period of time than expected and there would be a need to look at the whole system "through a new lens".  

Processes would have to be built to deal with the coronavirus that would last into next year, instead of a "wartime response" covering three to six months.

Meanwhile, the Director of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has said it's difficult to plan for a possible easing of restrictions, because we have no understanding of what the potential impact would be on the spread of Covid-19.    

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Professor Alan Barrett said all countries were looking to one another, but nobody had a clear sense of the best way of doing this.

He said if the virus started spreading dramatically again, after easing restrictions, then no economy was going to do well. People will be fearful about being out and about, he said. 

Professor Barrett said some businesses within a particular sector may be better able to comply with social distancing measures after reopening.

"Some restaurants might have the physical infrastructure that they're able to open, but others might not," he said.

He added this might also apply to construction sites and a range of other sectors.  

"It's a different mindset. It's more of a bottom up approach rather than a top down." He said public transport and childcare were two of the biggest constraints on easing restrictions.  

Getting employees to their workplaces while maintaining social distancing will pose a challenge, he said, and it was difficult to see how flexible workers would be if schools remained closed.  

He added there was an economic cost to looking after children and those who were working from home were "often not working at full productivity".

On the same programme, a senior lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI), said she was concerned about the rate of asymptomatic infection and presymptomatic transmission of Covid-19. 

Dr Carmen Regan said the increase in testing and the rapid turnaround of tests would be crucial to the assessment of any resurgence of the virus after restrictions were eased.

She said there was a strong argument for the testing of pregnant women, because pregnancy could not be postponed. 

She cited a study in New York suggesting that pregnant women who are presymptomatic posed a risk to 17 healthcare workers if they needed an emergency c-section. 

The focus on how restrictions could be eased comes as a new survey of more than 35,000 people found that almost a third said they had postponed medical appointments or check-ups due to the pandemic.  

It also suggests that the 2km limit for exercise is the restriction people most want removed. 

The Corona Citizens' Science Study is being carried out by research teams at NUI Galway, Dublin City University and the Insight SFI Centre for Data Analytics, which is also based in NUI Galway.

When it came to restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the virus, respondents were asked which of five restrictions they would like to see removed.

  • 50% chose lifting the 2km limit on movement
  • 37% chose lifting the ban on small group gatherings
  • 33% favoured returning to work
  • 32% opted for the reopening of schools

The re-opening of shops, pubs and restaurants was the least popular choice, 48% of respondents made it their fifth choice out of five.

Elsewhere, the Lord Mayor of Dublin said he was "gobsmacked" to see groups of people congregating in the capital at the weekend.

Tom Brabazon told Today with Seán O'Rourke he received calls from people on Saturday night at around 6pm alerting him to "crowds of people gathering in gardens".

"I was gobsmacked to see crowds of people in gardens, and judging by the numbers they weren't all from same family.

"They were drinking beer, carousing, having a great time and social distancing was out the window."

He said he subsequently received footage showing people in other estates having similar parties outside their homes, whose behaviour was "incredible and unbelievable," he said.