This weekend marks the first anniversary since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Ireland.

Since then, well over 200,000 cases have been announced, and more than 4,000 people have lost their lives. 

In the last 12 months, as the virus has turned all our lives upside down, Irish people have turned to doctors and scientists for information about the virus. 

Epidemiologists, immunologists, intensive care specialists and infectious disease experts have become household names.

Some of those who have shared their knowledge look back on the year that was. 

Dr Catherine Motherway

Catherine Motherway says Christmas 'was not one of our finest hours'

Consultant in intensive care medicine at University Hospital Limerick, Dr Catherine Motherway says Ireland has managed the pandemic very well.  

"We did well into the summer. When the second surge arose, we responded again," Dr Motherway explains.

"The fact we are vaccinating within 12 months is a phenomenal achievement in terms of science." 

However, she said Christmas "was not one of our finest hours" and reopening of society was not a good idea. 

"We didn't realise the significance of the new variants,'’ according to Dr Motherway. '’I think everyone wanted a Christmas, everyone wanted a break, we love Christmas. But the social mixing that occurred at that time, and the infectivity rate, both produced this last period of time which has been phenomenally difficult for families, for healthcare workers, for people who've lost their lives," she said.

Dr Motherway and her team have treated many critically ill patients with Covid-19 over the past 12 months, which has taken a "significant toll" on her and her colleagues.  

"There's no doubt that seeing members of the same family in ICU together, seeing people lose their lives while another family member is in a bed near them, it is very difficult and it has been difficult and every death and every lost life is a tragedy for that person."

Looking to a future post-pandemic, Dr Motherway said the virus has shown why public health needs to be properly resourced.

"You can always be more prepared for pandemics; you can never be too prepared. I think we have learned a lesson at a national and world level, we need to invest heavily in public health, we need to invest heavily in health infrastructure so we can actually take up the slack when something like this happens."

In the next 12 months, Dr Motherway hopes that the entire world will have access to vaccinations.

"We need a rapid roll out of vaccines throughout the world, not just the Western world. Everywhere needs to be vaccinated," said said, adding that "nobody is safe until everybody is safe from this thing". 

Dr Motherway said Covid-19 has a mortality of about 1%.

"Can you imagine if we had a pandemic with a worse case fatality rate?", she said.

"I didn't really think we would be still here doing what we are doing at the moment. I didn't think we would have a vaccine either in a year, so the fact we are vaccinating within 12 months is a phenomenal achievement in terms of science."

Professor Luke O'Neill 

Luke O'Neill believes Ireland could have been more aggressive in procuring more vaccines

"Science has delivered" says Professor Luke O'Neill, as he looks back on the year that was.  

"I would've done a side deal with the big pharma companies to get more vaccines in. If other EU countries can do it, why can't Ireland?"

The immunologist at TCD is is very optimistic about the roll out of vaccines.

"No one would have imagined three vaccines by the end of December in people’s arms, for a virus that first described [arrived] in January," he says.

Prof O’Neill predicts we will be "awash with vaccines" in the coming months and there will be "vaccines everywhere" by August or September. 

80% of Irish adults are due to get their vaccine by the end of June.

"That would be a great thing to achieve, because we know it works. In Israel, the counts are going down, the death rate is falling and that will happen here and then we can see our way out of this."

However, the Professor of Immunology believes Ireland could have been more aggressive in procuring more vaccines.

"I would've done a side deal with the big pharma companies to get more vaccines in. If other EU countries can do it, why can't Ireland?", he said.

Prof O’Neill thought by September or October of last year the situation might be better. "We all thought that. But this [virus] became relentless."

Reflecting on the pandemic and how it was managed in Ireland, Prof O’Neill is critical of "over cautiousness" by the authorities when deciding on issuing public health measures. Guidance around wearing face masks and coverings wasn’t issued in Ireland until May 2020, for example.  

"By last March, the science was compelling [around face coverings], back in February it wasn't, that's why they were a bit reluctant," he said.

He says that by April 2020 the science that we should all be wearing masks was compelling "yet they still waited a bit longer for that decision".

"They could've been a bit more punchy," he concludes.

However, Mr O’Neill has praised the latest measures to control Covid-19.

"We had one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. We went in hard with this one, and that was a good thing."

More than 4,000 Irish people have lost their lives during this pandemic. But when compared to the rest of the world Prof O’Neill believes our strict approach is working. 

"We have the fifth lowest death rate in Europe," he said, adding "that's something to be very proud of".

Prof O'Neill says after a year of living with the virus, his big lesson is to "act quickly, early and aggressively and maybe take a risk here and there".

"You can't be 100% certain with everything, but in retrospect a tiny bit of risk taking might have benefitted us in the end."

Prof O'Neill said he believes in 12 months' time we will be looking back on this year in disbelief, factoring in doubts about vaccine supply and new variants. 

"I think we'll be saying 'we did get through it and we beat this virus'."

Professor Clíona Ní Cheallaigh

Clíona Ní Cheallaigh says all healthcare workers will carry a sadness with them forever

After a tough and challenging year for frontline workers, Professor Clíona Ní Cheallaigh says time to recover will be needed.

"They were lonely and they were scared and their families weren't able to be with them to the same degree, and I think we will all carry that sadness with us."

The consultant in infectious diseases at St James's Hospital wants consideration to be given to giving healthcare workers extra time off work once the crisis subsides. 

"I think that's going to have to be done to enable to people to keep going for the years that are ahead."

She said that all healthcare workers will carry a sadness with them forever after what has been experienced in the last 12 months.

"Particularly last spring was very difficult to see people suffering and dying. I would never have had that high a proportion of my patients die that rapidly or unexpectedly and it was really, really sad.

"They were lonely and they were scared and their families weren't able to be with them to the same degree, and I think we will all carry that sadness with us."

She also said that many healthcare workers who contracted Covid-19 will also be dealing with the long-term health consequences in the months and years to come.

While Prof Ní Cheallaigh says the pandemic highlighted the deficiencies and existing pressures on hospitals, she praised the flexibility and creativity of all those working in the health system to revamp how things are done and "rose to the challenge".

"It's just amazing to think of. I would never have thought it would be possible for us to transform how we do things and put a system in place so rapidly with so many changes and people having to change how they work, what they do."

In planning for the future, Prof Ní Cheallaigh said that investment in public health needs to be ramped up. 

"They need IT systems that work nationally to track things, they need the staff and they need to be listened to. They're fantastic and this is what they're trained for," she said. 

Tighter controls on incoming travel is also essential in the months ahead, and Prof Ní Cheallaigh is in favour of mandatory hotel quarantine for all inward travellers to this country.

Last January, she remembers watching a Netflix documentary about pandemics.

"It's hard to believe it'll ever actually happen, and then it did," she said.

Prof Ní Cheallaigh said that the pandemic has shone a light on deficits in our social system, on homelessness, direct provision, people with no job security, no sick pay. She says all those things impact the health of all of us and she would like to see that inform policy going forward. 

Professor Sam McConkey

Sam McConkey 

One year on from the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Ireland, Professor Sam McConkey is torn about what the next 12 months could hold for us.

"If we continue with the current strategy, I don't see that we will get out of this. We will temporise and be here a year later."

The infectious diseases' expert believes there are three possible scenarios in a "very unpredictable" 12 months ahead.

The optimist in him wants to see a period of firm control.

"It's not living with Covid, it's living without Covid. We want to live without Covid and that can be achieved," he said.

"I would like to see a short period of really good contact tracing and testing, and of hard suppression so we get down to very low numbers. We need a huge investment in public health to keep it low and very strict border control to keep it out."

Prof McConkey says that "politically", people are slowly starting to come around to this idea, because he said they "realise the other options are not working well".

The second option is to continue on our current course, moving between varying levels of "lockdown" and the continued roll out of the vaccination programme.  

He said he doesn't believe that vaccines alone will control the virus "100%", as there could still be circulation among people who don't take a vaccine, who don't have a good immune response, or due to new variants that can circulate in spite of the new vaccines. 

"If we continue with the current strategy, I don't see that we will get out of this. We will temporise and be here a year later," he said.  

But the third scenario, Prof McConkey argued, is worse again. 

"If we were to get an influx of variants of concern that evaded the vaccine, and that were more transmissible, we could find ourselves in a worse situation, more or less where we were in January or even worse.

"Hospitals overwhelmed, 1,000 deaths a month, staff getting sick, a general level of fear in the community and little productivity because everything is closed. That would be the worst case scenario and I can't really choose between those three, there's a huge range there."

Prof McConkey said we didn't have a plan for a pandemic and this should be one of the big lessons.

"We need to have scenario plans, pre-prepared plans, perhaps even rehearsed, staffed and ready to go, because you don't often get much warnings of these things," he said.  

"I think resourcing and funding public health is an essential lesson we have all learned. Unless we have really robust local, regional and national capacity to keep the population health all well, then we are very susceptible to new threats in the future," he added.

"It's not just an investment for Covid, it's how to have a healthy population."

He says there were many mistakes made in the management of the pandemic here. 

"We certainly all made mistakes and errors. As a country, we didn't control inward migration early enough. We weren't thorough enough with contact tracing. We weren't fast enough with scaling up testing. We are not turning around tests fast enough. We are not contact tracing wide enough or fast enough to get ahead of the virus. We're not doing face to face local contact tracing and we are completely running out of outbreak management teams," he said.  

Prof McConkey stated that managing inward travel has become much more important, with the advent of variants of concern and the threat they pose to the vaccination programme.

"We all have hope around the vaccine, but that could all come to nought or have no use or meaning if a strain comes in that could bypass a vaccine."