There is no rule that people should spend less than two hours in the same room as others, according to public health advice issued to the Courts Service today.
The advice was published by the Chief Executive of the Courts Service, Angela Denning, who said the service had been advised there was no need to limit court sessions to two hours and the courts would resume conducting sittings for longer than that period from tomorrow.
She said the advice stated that limiting meetings in a shared space to less than two hours would avoid the inconvenience of being designated as a potential contact if someone went on to develop the disease, but was not an infection control issue.
Ms Denning wrote to staff and representatives of those who use the courts, letting them know the advice received from Professor Martin Cormican of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
She said Professor Cormican had advised that the public health advice had not changed and there was no rule that people should spend less than two hours in the same room as others.
This applied even in a medical setting where people were known to have Covid-19.
He had also advised that from an infection control perspective, there was no need to limit court sessions to two hours.
He concluded that he had not been able to identify any public health or infection prevention and control recommendation, to limit people being in the same room at work to a period of less than two hours in a 24-hour period.
He said this would make no material difference to the current risk of acquiring Covid-19 if good workplace controls on coming to work when ill and good hygiene were in place.
Professor Cormican said limiting the period in a shared space to less than two hours would be to avoid the inconvenience of being designated as a contact under contact tracing guidelines if someone developed the disease.
Some groups may wish to do this, he said, but it was not an infection control issue and was not likely to arise with any frequency at the moment, given the low incidence of infection.
If someone tested positive, then all people in the room with them for the full two hours would be considered a potential contact, he said.
An assessment of the room would then be carried out by public health doctors to identify actual contacts.
They would look at factors such as ceiling height, ventilation and the dimension of the room.
Ms Denning said the advice provided helpful clarification and reassurance as to how the courts could continue to work safely.
She said they would comply with and implement any changes in public health guidance.
She said a record of all those in courtrooms for more than two hours would be maintained in case contact tracing was required.
This would only be used for contact tracing and would not be retained longer than necessary.
She said numbers who could be safely accommodated in each courtroom had been assessed and were being managed to organise safe hearings.
She added that social distancing and additional hygiene measures were in place in courtrooms.
The issue arose following public health advice to the Houses of the Oireachtas in advance of a sitting on Tuesday of the Oireachtas committee on Covid-19, at which health officials including the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, and the CEO of the HSE, Paul Reid, appeared.
This afternoon, Minister for Health Simon Harris said advice stating that TDs cannot spend any longer than two hours in the Dáil chamber on any given day is specific to the Oireachtas as a workplace.
Last night, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said that the two-hour guidance is used by public health doctors after someone is confirmed to have Covid-19.
He said he was not privy to the specific guidelines given to the Oireachtas but the Health Protection Surveillance Centre guidelines are that people who share a close space with a confirmed case for longer than two hours could be considered "close contacts" and would have to self-isolate.
He said a risk assessment will be undertaken that takes into consideration issues, including the size of the room, ventilation and the distance the person was sitting from the confirmed case.
Dr Glynn said that is not to say that every business and organisation in the country cannot have people in the same room for more than two hours, but if there is a confirmed case and people have been in the same room for more than two hours, they will be categorised as close contacts.
He said the message to employers is, as much as possible to limit people coming to work and to work from home, and limit meetings so you are minimising risk.
Dr Glynn said everything that is being done as part of the response to Covid-19 is a balance of risk and benefit.
Earlier, the Chairperson of the Bar Council had said challenges to the resumption of court hearings relate to the hearing of oral evidence and jury actions.
Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sarah McInerney, Mícheál O'Higgins said these are two key challenges, but they are not insurmountable.
"One area is the desire to get witness actions; cases where oral evidence is heard," he said.
"The second area that is problematic is jury actions, because of the administrative difficulty surrounding the empanelment of the jury, which involves a larger pool of citizens coming to court."
Mr O'Higgins said that before Covid-19 arrived in Ireland, criminal trials were "up and running" and have continued right through.
He cited one trial in the Central Criminal Court that has been going for a number of weeks as an example.
"The jury have been present for large chunks of that," he said.
"Imaginative steps were taken. They were spread out across the entire courtroom instead of being cooped up in their jury box. When it comes to the deliberation stage they will have an entirely separate courtroom in which to carry out."