I welcome this opportunity to update this House once again on the Covid-19 disease and our response to it. I wish to start by expressing my condolences to the family and friends of those that have been lost to this disease since I was last in this House. It is an individual loss but there is also a sense of national loss. We share in your loss.
Today, I will update the House in two ways, by providing the latest information on our ongoing modelling work and by sharing some key messages from my recent discussions today with the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan. Members will recall that the R nought, or reproduction rate, was previously in a range of 0.5 to 0.8. I am advised that range is now as low as 0.3 to 0.8 in some estimates and the overall rate is considered stable around 0.5. The other data coming through in the modelling is the number of admissions to hospital and intensive care. I am pleased to announce that both of these have halved in the last week. Last week hospital admissions were around 40 a day whereas this week that is around 20 a day and last week ICU admissions were around four to six a day whereas it is around two a day this week.
In long-term residential care settings, the number of cases is declining. Based on the preliminary data, it is declining from approximately 100 new cases a day in early April to approximately 50 a day towards the end of last week. These significant decreases are welcome signs of progress. They are the tangible result of so much hard work across our health service and, indeed, across the entire country. I want to convey my genuine thanks to all those working so hard.
I want to share with Members four key messages from my discussions earlier today with the Chief Medical Officer regarding the point the country is now at. First, as the public health measures in our society begin to be lifted, our personal behaviour will become more important than ever in order to protect ourselves and each other. If we continue to wash our hands, practise coughing and sneezing etiquette and maintain social distancing, we can move more safely to our next phase when 18 May arrives. Second, the levels of the disease in our community continue to decrease. This gives us an opportunity to go after the disease where it is and focus our attention on places at a higher risk of outbreaks, such as workplaces and other congregated settings. Third, the World Health Organization has stated that this disease may be with us for a long time. It will be with us in the form of either lower levels of transmission or waves of higher infection rates. In order to be prepared for this, we must continue to remain vigilant as individuals and as a society and we must be ready to reintroduce public health measures when necessary. Fourth, as a country, we have pushed back this disease by working together and protecting ourselves and each other. As we continue to do this into the future, we continue to be stronger than this disease.
The sacrifices we have made, the work we have done and the solidarity we have kept have pushed back this disease enough so that we are now able to begin to tentatively plan for the reopening of our society and our economy. However, let me be clear: this progress is fragile and this plan depends on all of us remaining resolute and relentless in our national effort to suppress this virus. Our road map has been published and we are working to move forward with it but we do so with all due caution. The protection of the health and lives of our citizens will continue to be our primary concern. When we come to consider any further easing of restrictions, we will continue to rely on our expert public health advice and we will have regard to: the latest data on the progression of the disease; the capacity and resilience of our health service in terms of hospital and ICU occupancy; the capacity of our sampling, testing and contact tracing programme; our ability to protect and care for those who are most at risk from the disease; and, importantly, an assessment of the risk of secondary morbidity and mortality as a consequence of the restrictions. We will make our decisions based on the advice and data, along with our consideration of what is best for our society as a whole.
We have pushed back this disease collectively but it has certainly not gone away. It can return with ferocity if we do not remain vigilant and retain our ability to be flexible and agile in our response. We will not risk losing the ground we have gained against the disease. The people would not wish us to do so. All our decisions will continue to respect the hardship and the sacrifice that so many have made to bring us to this point.
As already mentioned, one critical element is our ability to test and contact-trace so that we can limit the impact of future outbreaks of Covid-19. Our target testing capacity remains as advised by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, on 17 April: the ability to perform 100,000 tests per week operating on a seven-days-a-week basis for a minimum of six months. The HSE has developed a plan for building its capacity towards that target and I am pleased to say it is now delivering real results. Significant progress on building and increasing testing capacity has been made in what objectively must be seen as a short space of time. The result is that capacity has expanded to 12,000 a day and turnaround times have significantly improved. The HSE will be stepping up capacity to 15,000 tests a day in the next two weeks. Turnaround times will continue to improve and we should see average turnaround time from swab to result of between one to three days by 18 May.
We are continuing to widen the net of groups being tested to meet this capacity. This is important and has been welcomed by our general practitioners and health professionals. Now that we have extra capacity, we are widening the criteria in terms of who can be tested. This is good as we continue to aggressively go after this virus where it is most likely and where it will do most harm. We will continue to strategically target testing at vulnerable groups. Let me be clear: those testing priorities will be decided by public health experts and NPHET. They will not be political decisions. We will target testing where it can do most good in terms of going after the virus where we are most likely to find it and in groups in which it is most likely to do harm.
The behaviour of this disease in our residential facilities continues to be our area of greatest concern, despite what I think people would have to acknowledge is a significant improvement based on the modelling data on the reduction in the number of new cases. Our 23 response teams across the country, led by senior nursing support, will continue to provide senior clinical expertise, infection prevention and control and public health input to prevent and manage clusters in nursing homes and other residential facilities. I have no doubt when we get into the questions and answers that we will have an opportunity to outline some of the benefit we are now seeing from the home help agreement in the redeployment of staff from that sector into our nursing homes, which has begun in earnest this week. As the House will be aware, we have prioritised testing in our long-term residential care settings. That has yielded a real benefit in getting on top of this virus. Crucially, our regulator, the voice that we, the Oireachtas, put in place to oversee safety in nursing homes, namely, HIQA, will have ongoing oversight of the response in these facilities through its Covid-19 quality assurance regulatory framework. Its visits to nursing homes have started. I had a very good meeting with HIQA on that yesterday.
Last Tuesday, we were able to increase the distance which people may go to exercise to up to 5 km. We were also able to provide advice to those who are cocooning on how they can safely take some exercise as long as they take those necessary precautions in the interest of their own health. I wish to say a special word to people in this "cocooning" category. I know this is an uninvited label and a very much unloved one. I am not sure where the word came from but I have yet to meet anyone who likes it, myself included. People in the category are well aware they have an increased vulnerability to this awful virus but they do not associate their ordinary, non-Covid lives with vulnerability. I refer, for example, to people in their 70s and 80s who are in good health. Following the advice on how best to stay safe contrasts starkly with a life lived normally, actively and resiliently. I hope the increased activity suggested by the recent advice helps, and we want to build on that. We will continue to provide honestly advice on the best way for those most adversely affected by the virus to stay safe. We do not do so to cause offence in any way but, rather, in order to impart the best possible medical advice. I hope that as we further suppress this virus together, we can get closer to those normal lives as quickly as possible. We were able to bring in these changes and begin to plan tentatively for the reopening of our society and some of our economy because our country has acted as one in doing what it takes to suppress this disease. We can continue to move forward safely and look forward to better days if we stay the course and remain vigilant.
I will conclude by expressing my gratitude for the continued unity of this House in supporting the public health advice while rightly scrutinising the Government's response. I very much welcome the establishment of a new Oireachtas committee, which I know has been set up to aid that effort. On that note, I ask everyone to stress the difference we can all still make between now and 18 May in weakening this virus as much as we possibly can. We now know how to do it as a country - wash your hands, cough and sneeze properly, keep your distance, stay at home, stay safe, mind one another and protect one another. That is how we will make sure that these days between now and 18 May really count. The weaker we can make this virus during this time, the greater chance of success it gives our national plan in order that we can press "Go" and proceed with trying to get back to some degree of normality, and the greater the opportunity will be to save lives and keep people well. I know that is what we are all about.