Minister for Health Simon Harris will meet representatives from the Irish Rugby Football Union on Wednesday morning, after the union sought "specific reasoning" behind his call to cancel the Ireland v Italy rugby game amid fears of the spread of COVID-19.

In a tweet, Mr Harris confirmed he would meet the IRFU in the morning, saying his decision to call for the match not to go ahead was "not taken lightly but we must act on the basis of public health advice".

The IRFU had earlier said that it was seeking an "urgent meeting" with Mr Harris, after he said the game on 7 March should not go ahead because of the coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy.

The match is scheduled to be played in Dublin, but the outbreak of the virus in Italy had cast doubt on whether it would go ahead.

In a statement, the IRFU said: "The IRFU is seeking an urgent meeting with Minister Harris as to the specific reasoning behind calling for the cancellation of the Ireland V Italy Six Nations fixture in the context of the Government's overall travel policy to and from Italy and other affected countries.

"Until such time as the IRFU has had contact with the Minister and gets an understanding of the government's strategic policy on travel to and from Ireland and the cancellation of mass gatherings, it is not in a position to comment further."

Mr Harris said it would constitute a significant risk, and the Department of Health would be contacting the IRFU in relation to this.

He acknowledged this would be a "huge disappointment" to many.

It comes as four more people have died from the virus in northern Italy, bringing the total number of people who died in the country since the outbreak began to 11.

Italy has the largest outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe, with over 320 cases now confirmed, most of them in the north of the country.

Speaking on RTÉ's Six One News, Mr Harris said the advice is that if someone has returned from an at-risk area and is displaying no symptoms, they should consult the HSE website.

He said there is no recommendation to self-isolate under EU guidelines.


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The minister was speaking following a meeting of the National Public Health Emergency team at the Department of Health.

The meeting took place to review preparations for coronavirus, and Mr Harris said there have been 90 suspected cases of the virus in Ireland, none of which have tested positive for Covid-19.

He said his department is expanding the list of affected regions, to include Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Iran and the regions in Italy that have already been highlighted.

There are "likely to be clusters of cases of Covid-19 throughout the EU", Mr Harris said, but he added that he is "satisfied that plans currently in place in Ireland are sufficient".

In a statement, Six Nations said it is aware of the recommendation in relation to the upcoming championship match on 7 March.

It said it will remain in close contact with the IRFU regarding the outcome of their discussions with the Government.

Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, has said the Ireland-Italy rugby match would have involved a number of people travelling from an affected region and he thinks there would be a "high risk of cases being imported" from this part of the world.

He said no other responsible decision on public health grounds could be taken other than the one they have taken after their meeting today and this recommendation was made to the Minister for Health.

"No other responsible public health decision could be made," he said.

Dr Holohan said they will be happy to engage with the IRFU and explain the rationale for the decision.

He said the fact that cases of the COVID-19 found in Spain, Austria, and Croatia have arisen from people who travelled from Italy, underscores their decision regarding the rugby match.

Establishment of expert sub-group recommended

In a statement, the National Public Health Emergency Team has recommended that an expert sub-group be established to develop criteria for the risk assessment of other mass gatherings.

It also recommends an immediate increase in the level of public awareness campaigns at ports, airports, schools and public offices.

Dr Holohan reiterated that Ireland remains in a "containment phase".

He said: "Based on European Centre for Disease Control guidelines, the cancellation of mass gatherings in this phase is justified in exceptional circumstances, and today's recommendation to cancel the Ireland v Italy rugby match is based on the rapidly evolving nature of the outbreak in northern Italy, and the consequent risk of importation of cases into Ireland were the match to go ahead."

The team has insisted that anyone who has been to an affected region in the last 14 days and is experiencing symptoms should self-isolate and call their GP.

The rugby Pro 14 game between Ulster and Benetton, which was due to take place in Treviso on Saturday, has been postponed.

Separately, two Irish athletes who were due to take part in the 'World Series Italia' event at Lignano, which is north of Venice, have been told the swim competition has been cancelled.

A spokesperson for Paralympics Ireland said they were told the event had been cancelled "on the advice of the Local Region and the Italian Para Swimming Federation in response to the recent spread of the Covid-19 virus in Northern Italy".

The latest figures from the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention show that there have been over 80,000 cases of the coronavirus and there have been 2,698 deaths.

But the World Health Organisation has said the epidemic in China peaked between 23 January and 2 February and has been declining since.

Additional Reporting: Vincent Kearney, Fergal Bowers, Gail Conway