It has been nearly nine months since the threat of an unprecedented global pandemic became a reality. Since then, Ireland and every country in Europe and throughout the world have had to take dramatic action to contain the terrible toll that this virus can take. Every aspect of social, economic and cultural life has been upended as we have worked to shield those most at risk and to limit the damage. There have been many ups and downs and the second wave of the virus, which has hit Europe in the past two months, has been divisive in many countries, with societies divided between those who accept the need for continued action and those who want all restrictions lifted.
Thankfully, levels of compliance and social solidarity in Ireland have remained very high. While there are some who prize a return to certain activities over the safety of society as a whole, the overwhelming evidence suggests that the people accept the need for vigilance, personal responsibility and targeted restrictions. Let no one be in any doubt, thousands of lives have been saved by the combination of these restrictions and the personal commitment of the people to limiting the spread of the virus. Almost 3,000 people on our island have lost their lives because of the virus. This is a terrible number in itself, but it would have been many times worse without the dramatic actions that have been taken. The level 5 restrictions, which we implemented to limit the impact of the second wave in Ireland, will be reviewed by the Government in the coming days. As we decide on the next steps, I am determined that we have an open discussion about actions to date and what needs to be done in the months ahead. This is why I have requested the preparation of a detailed review of actions, the progress of the virus and key challenges facing us. It is also why I requested the holding of this debate, and I see this as an opportunity for Deputies to contribute to discussions before key decisions are taken and to be able to give their perspectives on how we will move forward.
From the moment the Government took office almost five months ago, our work has been dominated by the need to manage the direct and indirect impact of the pandemic. A pandemic such as this does not come with a handbook to follow at every stage, and a defining characteristic of Covid-19 has been how the specific challenges it has presented have constantly evolved.
The very worst thing one could have in the response to this pandemic is a consistent and unchanging approach. If we look throughout the world, many countries promoted during the first wave as the models to follow are in much worse positions today. I am proud of the fact that we have been willing to respond quickly to new challenges, review actions and look for new ways forward. I thank all of my colleagues in government for their willingness to accept an unprecedented intensity in the review, development and implementation of policy. Together with public servants, who are absolutely dedicated to serving the interests of the Irish people, this work has made a very real impact.
This morning's figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control give a very clear picture of the progress our country has made during the second wave of the virus. Ireland has the second lowest incidence of infection in the European Union, with case numbers and deaths very substantially below both the average and what might have occurred if patterns from the first wave had been repeated. Deaths are 90% below the level of the first wave. At the same time, many more critical public services have remained active, our schools have been open, and economic activity, while still badly affected, has been higher. This did not happen by chance. It happened because the Irish people accepted the need to alter their behaviour and accepted key restrictions.
Masks are a key tool in limiting the spread of the virus. The introduction of the mask guidelines in July increased the numbers wearing them in shops, on buses and in other indoor spaces from 37% to 90%. Travel is also critical to the spread of the virus, including different strains of the virus. The decision to limit the easing of travel guidelines in July and August was inconvenient for many, but the figures suggest it has made an important contribution to avoiding the levels of travel-related infections seen in other countries. Testing capacity is critical to understanding and catching the virus. When figures were very low in August, we decided not to scale down testing and to keep in place critical sectoral testing programmes. More than 1.8 million tests have been completed, with a weekly testing capacity of 140,000 in place. There have been occasional problems but, in general, the testing capacity has been fast and effective. We have one of the more high-performing systems of testing across Europe and globally. A total of 62% of the positive cases identified in the testing have had no underlying clinical conditions. Contacting, testing and isolating asymptomatic cases are a critical part of limiting the spread of the virus. I acknowledge the incredible work of the HSE and other bodies in leading this critical part of the response. I also want to acknowledge again the work of our health professionals. They have moved swiftly both to develop and adopt new approaches to managing Covid cases. Success in treating severe cases has improved remarkably fast. At the same time, major efforts have been made to restore non-Covid activity in our hospitals. The return of children to schools was a core priority for us and it is worth mentioning again today. It was a daunting logistical and public health challenge and enormous credit is due to everyone involved. It is not possible to have zero spread of the virus among more than 1 million people, but the fact that its spread appears to be at a lower level in schools than in the community as a whole is a remarkable achievement. Evidence has shown the great pressure which school closures placed on children and their families. Almost one fifth of women with children in school were unable to work during school closures and a much larger number of parents faced increased pressure and limits on their ability to work.
The economic recession caused by the pandemic has required a range of unprecedented measures which we continue to update and review. Within a month of taking office, we prepared, published and implemented a dramatic stimulus package to protect as many jobs as possible. This was built on in October's budget, which provides a foundation for the recovery that I know we can rapidly achieve. The biggest impact on containing the second wave was, of course, the decision to move, first, to an enhanced level 3 and then, in light of the escalating problem in Europe and the need to exercise added caution, to move to level 5.
The second wave is not over by any means. If there is one thing we know now, it is that taking the virus for granted is the foundation for its spread. Infection rates can very quickly get out of control if people believe it is no longer a threat. Ireland's relative success in the second wave has been because we were willing to act. We had a less comprehensive reopening than many other countries. Individually, we continued to modify our behaviour. When the threat of high levels of transmission appeared, we acted. After nine months, the one overwhelming fact about this deadly virus is that it thrives in social settings. Therefore, we must respect social distancing. We have to limit our social interactions. The very thing we value most in our society, which is our sense of family and community, can be a major threat when we hold social gatherings and move in hospitality settings. That is a hard message when we have endured so much this year, but it is one we simply must understand if we are to continue to limit deaths and serious illness in this pandemic.
As we look forward to the next stage, complacency will remain our enemy. We are not yet in a position to return to normality or close to normality. Our approach will continue to be to go as far as possible but no further. I accept the goodwill of every group that is calling for the relaxation of restrictions impacting on them. They care passionately about their businesses and their sectors. I fully accept their statements that they want to respect guidelines. However, the reality is that, for some activities, the guidance will be that there is too much risk. For all activities, there are core guidelines and restrictions on how we act that must be respected.
In the past few weeks, there has been great news about promising vaccines. An effective and widely used vaccine is the final route to recovering from the pandemic. I want to say again that the Government will do everything to make sure the Irish people have rapid, fair and comprehensive access to the vaccines. There remain vital checks to be completed before the vaccines are authorised for public use. However, we have begun critical steps. In the summer, we joined an EU joint initiative to place advance contracts for purchasing different vaccines. This EU initiative is vital for smaller countries in ensuring fair access. The major logistical, medical and ethical issues involved in the roll-out of a vaccine are being addressed by a cross-public service task force which we have established. Its external chairman, Professor Brian MacCraith, has run a major university and is an internationally respected scientific leader.
Between today and when the vaccines are widely administered, we must remain vigilant and we must accept the need to limit our activities. As a country, we have worked together to achieve great things in limiting the spread and impact of this deadly virus. That work is not over yet but we have shown how much we can achieve. In the coming days, we will decide and outline in detail the next phase of our national response. I have no doubt that if we maintain our national solidarity, we will be able to look back at our shared response to the pandemic as a moment when we faced great danger together and came through it with strength and determination.