I very much welcome the opportunity to update the House on the ongoing situation relating to Covid-19, coronavirus. I begin by sincerely thanking colleagues for what has been real cross-party and cross-grouping co-operation. On the floor of this House today I commit to continue to keep Members of this House briefed, but more than that: we will hear from them, interact with them and ensure their input is useful in that regard. As the Taoiseach outlined in the House, I intend to put a structure in place to ensure that we can further strengthen the cross-party work, acknowledging the political interregnum that currently exists.
This is a time of national and international challenge and it does require us all to pull together. I know that currently in Ireland a lot of people are worried and concerned. I know that parents in particular are receiving a lot of information and sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, what is appropriate and what is not. I also know the coronavirus is the subject of lots of discussions among teachers in schools, among students in the playground, around the dinner table and in the workplace. People are following social media and at times they can be exposed to myths and misinformation about coronavirus. I strongly encourage all people to take their advice from public health doctors, to listen to doctors and medical experts, to follow the HSE advice and, crucially, to trust public health doctors who have one sole focus, that is, to contain this virus and protect people.
We will continue to provide all the information we can and we are continuing to develop our communications material.
It is important to know that the vast majority of people who contract this virus will not need hospital care but can be treated at home. Some people believe that everybody who gets this virus will require hospitalisation, but that is not the case. It is also important to know that, currently, the likelihood of person-to-person transmission in Ireland is low. These words of reassurance do not mean we are not taking this matter extraordinarily seriously; of course we are. I continue to emphasise that this is not a time for panic or complacency.
I assure the House that our approach to this challenge is, and will remain, both vigilant and proportionate. I reassure Deputies of the considerable effort being undertaken in my Department, led by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, and by the HSE and its public health experts, to contain and respond to this serious public health threat and to mitigate the consequences across society. As people are aware, Covid-19 poses a very serious public health threat, not just here in Ireland but across the globe.
I wish to provide an update on the current situation nationally. Last Saturday, 29 February, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre was informed of the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Ireland. A second case was notified on Tuesday last, 3 March. Both of these cases are in the east of the country. As the House will now be aware, last night the Health Protection Surveillance Centre was informed of four new confirmed cases of Covid-19. These cases are in the west. All of the patients involved - they are receiving appropriate medical care - were identified and tested in line with established protocols for the investigation of suspect cases of Covid-19. I can confirm that the confirmed cases in Ireland are all associated with travel from affected areas in northern Italy rather than contact with other confirmed cases. There is still no evidence of widespread or sustained community transmission in Ireland, as has been seen in other countries. The HSE is working to identify contacts the patients may have had, to provide them with information and advice on how to prevent further spread.
None of the patients has been named publicly by the Department of Health or HSE, nor will they ever be, in order to protect patient confidentiality. This is essential to ensure all members of the public that they can have confidence that their privacy will be protected should they wish to report any matters to our health service. In fact, an effort not to protect this privacy, particularly on social media, has been rather disgusting and despicable. We need people to come forward when they have symptoms, to identify themselves and co-operate with our public health service. Anything that lessens trust or confidence is not helping in terms of containing the virus here or globally.
Deputies can rest assured that the contact-tracing protocols operated by the HSE comprise a proportionate and adequate response to these matters. We have been working very closely with the public health authorities in Northern Ireland on all these matters. Public health authorities have activated all appropriate contact-tracing protocols. I signed the Infectious Diseases (Amendment) Regulations 2020 on Thursday, 20 February in order to make provision for Covid-19 to be added to the list of notifiable diseases so doctors who are at the front line of our response to the virus will be obliged to notify the HSE when a case is suspected or diagnosed and will be able to take appropriate action to respond to the very serious public health threat posed by the Covid-19 virus. There has been a notable increase in the number of cases tested, from 90 to 397, in one week but there has been no community transmission recorded yet. With regard to capacity in our health service, we have now approved an additional 20 intensive care unit beds. The chief executive of the health service outlined these today. Further plans are in place for more in this regard.
Efforts to contain the virus are continuing. I reiterate the advice of the Chief Medical Officer to the effect that central to this is that people know what to do in the event that they have symptoms. That is really the message we have to get out. The general public is advised to follow advice from the HSE and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
Turning to the international context, as Deputies will be aware, on 30 January 2020, the WHO declared that the outbreak of Covid-19, or coronavirus, as it is known, originating in Wuhan, China, met the criteria for a public health emergency of international concern in accordance with the provisions of the international health regulations. Ireland is guided in its response to emerging international public health incidents by the advice and protocols of the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC. As the situation evolves, we continue to work with our international partners, including the WHO and the ECDC, the other member states of the European Union and the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. I will attend a meeting in Brussels tomorrow where the health Ministers of the EU will have the opportunity to take stock of the current situation and measures already taken in order to find the best approach for a co-ordinated response to the current spread of Covid-19 in the EU. We need that co-ordinated European and global response.
In line with our national emergency management structures, the National Public Health Emergency Team, chaired by the Chief Medical Officer, has been meeting regularly regarding the Covid-19 outbreak. The team is the forum for managing the interface between the Department of Health and the HSE during the planning and response phases of a public health emergency such as the one we now face. As part of its continuous assessment of Ireland's response and preparedness to Covid-19, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, at its meeting on 3 March 2020, recommended a number of further measures. These include an update to the travel advice for Italy to advise against all non-essential travel to the regions of Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont. Mass gatherings guidelines are to be published in the coming days following discussion with stakeholders. The HSE is now moving to a community-testing model for assessment and investigation of suspect cases so everything does not need to be done in a hospital setting. Importantly, four sub-groups have been established to support and provide advice in the following areas: vulnerable people with underlying health conditions or older people, health and social care workers’ protection, acute hospital preparedness and continuity of supply of medicines and medical devices. I am particularly pleased to inform the House that a meeting with patient advocacy groups will take place in my Department tomorrow. An expert advisory group provides scientific advice and assistance to NPHET in carrying out its work.
We are acutely aware that while there are significant health consequences posed by the Covid-19 virus, this also impacts more widely on society and poses threats to the functioning of our economy and country. Issues such as port health, travel advice, contingency planning, communications as well as advice and guidance to various sectors, including the public, have been discussed and are being kept under constant review. In response to this, the Government has now established a new Cabinet committee, chaired by the Taoiseach, to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19. The work of the Cabinet committee will include addressing the impacts, mitigation measure and contingencies for cross-sectoral issues that arise in areas beyond the health service, building on the effective public health work undertaken to date. A whole-of-Government approach to the coronavirus response requires cohesive decision-making, a partnership approach, expert public health advice and clarity of communications. The Government also endorsed the establishment of a stakeholder forum. The forum is the mechanism through which engagement with civil society, employers, social partners, local leaders, voluntary groups and others will be progressed and will ensure that they are kept informed of developments, what assistance they can provide and raise awareness of the appropriate responses to the challenges posed by Covid-19.
I would also like to take the opportunity to inform the House of a few issues arising beyond the health sector. In doing so, it is worth pointing out that the websites of Departments and agencies are being updated regularly as the situation evolves. For anybody considering travel to other countries, the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs provides travel advice, which is updated as the need arises. The Government is monitoring the situation with our agencies, ports and airports. Airports and sea ports are following the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team and are in continual direct liaison with the HSE through the port health group. The Government is mindful that any sustained period of significant flight restrictions would lead to very significant impacts on tourism and businesses, and is in regular contact with tourism industry leaders.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and the Minister of State at his Department, Deputy Griffin, convened a meeting of their Covid-19 tourism monitoring group on 26 Feb to monitor the disruption to the sector. This group met again this week and will meet weekly, as necessary. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has also been in contact with public transport operators, and a meeting was organised between the National Transport Authority, transport operators and the HSE on 3 March. From a business, trade and labour perspective, the outbreak of Covid-19 is already having an impact.
As the House knows, the Taoiseach announced earlier that the Government recognises that employees who need to self-isolate in accordance with medical advice should receive income support. We know this will require flexibility and responsiveness by employers and in Government social protection schemes. Following consultation with employers and trade union representatives, proposals will be considered at the Cabinet committee next Monday.
The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, and her Department are working on a range of supports and providing inputs across a number of areas impinging on Irish business, for example, in regard to supply chains. The Department and the development agencies, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and our local enterprise offices, are actively assessing and working with affected firms, both in overseas markets and in manufacturing businesses here at home. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has updated advice to business on continuity planning that includes a practical checklist, to which I draw businesses’ attention, as well as links to relevant Covid-19 advice. This, in turn, is being shared by business representative bodies with their members and will help companies to assess risk and consider preparatory actions to respond. Additional engagement with business representative bodies, including the retail and grocery sector, is ongoing.
The Department of Education and Skills, under its Minister, Deputy McHugh, has published a range of useful information, including posters, guidance documents and videos, all of which are available on its website.
I realise that in the time available I have only been able to touch on a brief range of activity happening right across the Government, but I urge all those interested to check the websites of our Government Departments and agencies for comprehensive, up-to-date information. We will continue to push out those messages through the stakeholder forum.
Ireland remains in containment phase. The Chief Medical Officer will update the public, this House and the media every evening regarding the current situation. That is an appropriate forum to have in place so the people of Ireland get to hear daily from our Chief Medical Officer. Our current focus is on identifying and isolating any possible cases and ensuring rigorous infection prevention and control and contact tracing procedures are in place. However, the absolute truth is that circumstances are constantly evolving. We are learning more about this virus day by day and sometimes hour by hour.
I understand just how anxious and concerned people are about this outbreak, but it is important to reiterate that if people are not in an area where Covid-19 is spreading, have not travelled from an area where Covid-19 is spreading or have not been in contact with an infected patient, the risk of infection is low. We will continue to communicate key public health messages to keep people informed and up to date on all matters. Very good information is available on the HSE website about simple measures we can all take to help to protect ourselves, our families and people in our workplaces and to minimise the spread of the virus. I urge everybody, including those of us in here, to lead by example in familiarising ourselves with that available advice.
I trust Deputies will join with me in paying tribute to our health service personnel, our doctors, nurses, ambulance staff, paramedics, care workers and all of those working on the front line in response to Covid-19. These people are working flat out and have been for some significant time. We need to acknowledge that. I hope the information I have set out this evening will be helpful in understanding the utmost seriousness with which the Government is treating this situation and our willingness, desire and requirement to work with the Oireachtas in that regard.
I urge all of us at this time to recognise the potential severity of this moment for our country and the need to ensure we all act in support of our public health officials in their work. This is a public health emergency. Our response to that emergency can only be guided by the best international evidence and advice available. Therefore, I again thank all the Deputies here for working with us collaboratively as we focus our efforts in the immediate future on minimising the impacts on our country and society. I very much appreciate the support of all as we work hard to balance the continuation of everyday activities with simultaneously taking all appropriate public health measures to limit the spread and impact of this virus.
Although we may not yet have a new Government, since the recent election we have a new Dáil - the Thirty-third Dáil. I hope I speak for all the Members of this House when I say to the people of Ireland that all Deputies, regardless of whether they are in government or in opposition, are united in doing our utmost to protect our country in the face of this threat. Go raibh maith agaibh.