I thank Senator Warfield. I also thank all the Senators for their contributions to this debate on Covid-19. It is clear that we have a common goal of reopening Ireland safely. While we would like to open Ireland completely at this time, unfortunately, that is not possible. The virus is still circulating in our community and while at large, it poses a very real threat to all of us, particularly those who are most vulnerable.
As referenced earlier, 71,000 cases of Covid-19 have been detected in Ireland, with 2,000 deaths, sadly. Worldwide, there have been more than 59 million cases of the disease reported to the World Health Organization, with the number of deaths standing at almost 1.4 million. Many countries have seen significant challenges in their response to this disease, with some facing impacts on their healthcare systems as capacity is stretched with cases requiring hospitalisation. Thankfully, we are not yet at that level in Ireland, but it is precisely the type of scenario that we are trying to avoid. As such, any new measures will require careful consideration of what can be safely opened in society without increasing the risk that case numbers will increase dramatically.
We know that this disease has had a significant international impact, and as of 23 November 2020, in a group which includes the EU, EEA and the UK, Ireland ranks 29th in respect of the 14-day case notification rate. In Europe, only Finland has a lower 14-day incidence rate, and our 14-day incidence rate has fallen from 309.9 just over four weeks ago to 108.7. While we have made significant progress in Ireland over recent weeks, we know that it is possible to reduce case numbers from our experience earlier in the year.
As we approach the Christmas and holiday season, we need everyone to follow the public health advice so as to limit the transmission of Covid-19 in Ireland and protect those who are most vulnerable in our families and communities. We are urging the public to combat the disease by limiting their number of daily contacts. People should work from home and stay at home as much as possible. A small additional effort to reduce our contacts will make a big difference to reducing the incidence of the disease before 1 December. We are also asking that those who have been deemed to be close contacts take up the offer of testing when advised to do so. This will improve our ability to reduce the risk of onward transmission of the disease.
The HSE has put in place a robust testing and tracing strategy, and our testing programme has expanded enormously since the onset of the crisis. We now have the capacity to undertake up to 140,000 tests per week, and in excess of 1.8 million tests have been done since the pandemic began. We are continuing to undertake serial testing of all staff in nursing homes and in the food production sector while also performing mass testing where it is required. If we do those things, it will give us the best chance to continue to suppress the virus until vaccines are widely available.
When the virus is transmitting, there is a direct link between the numbers getting infected, the numbers being hospitalised and then subsequently admitted to intensive care units, and the number of people who, sadly, pass away. This is why the Government has taken extensive measures throughout the pandemic to limit the transmission of the virus when required to ensure that we have not had a situation where our hospitals and intensive care units have been overrun. Such a situation would not only impact on those needing treatment for Covid-19, it would also impact upon those needing to access hospital for the treatment of other diseases and in emergencies.
I acknowledge again the work undertaken by the public sector and by employers across the economy in working with us to ensure that measures have been implemented safely over the past year. I thank the Senators for the contributions they have made today. Senator Boyhan raised the issues of physical and mental health, businesses, and nursing homes in the context of the pandemic. He also raised the issue of the Keeping Well campaign that we launched on 29 October, with a focus on the physical and mental health, the five tenets of which are keeping active, staying connected, switching off, eating well and minding one's mood. Effectively, what we are trying to do with this programme is to get those at home or in different situations to reflect on their mental health. The campaign works with others in the area doing things such as community calls, and they have been very helpful. However, it has been a difficult time for everyone and their mental health.
There are a range of funded efforts in place in the area of mental health, including the provision of online and telephone counselling through NGOs. The national psychosocial response framework focuses on the impact of Covid-19, and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, in collaboration with the Department of Education, recently launched the winter health support leaflet for young people.
Senator Doherty raised the issue of nursing homes and also testing and tracing, which was mentioned by others. As I said previously, we have the capacity to complete a total of 140,000 tests per week. I thank the German lab which has supported us in this effort. As a member state of the EU, we can enjoy such support, and we are not competing with bigger countries in respect of accessing a vaccine, because there is an exchange of knowledge and information through the EU and the WHO. In the context of a pandemic, the importance of being part of an international group becomes clear. As regards contact tracing, there are now more than 700 people undertaking this work and in excess of 1,000 working in swabbing.
Senator Byrne rightly talked about vaccines and made the point that information on any vaccine should be issued in multiple languages, which is very reasonable. He also mentioned the Health Research Board, an organisation with which I have had contact. It is very active, does great work, and provides advice and information on where this country is going in relation to health issues. It is good to have accredited information at our disposal. Within the EU we are involved in the procurement exercise for vaccines and the EU is seeking to develop a portfolio of different vaccines. The preparation for the Covid-19 vaccine programme has been completed and the programme will be rolled out as soon as vaccines become available, and across Government a task force has been established to oversee and support the immunisation programme.
Senators Hoey and Warfield spoke about front-line workers and highlighted the importance of treating them well, particularly student nurses. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and student nurses have raised the issue of student nurses' pay, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, is considering proposals to support student nurses further to continue clinical learning, and we hope we can work on that. Senator Warfield also raised the issue of gay men's health services in the old Meath hospital. I have emailed the hospital for a response on the issue and I will get back to the Senator as quickly as possible. I thank him for raising that important issue.
Senator Buttimer raised the issues of contact tracing and supplies of the Covid-19 vaccine. Again, I think I have already addressed that to a certain extent.
Senator Fitzpatrick talked about Christmas, young people and the virus, following the guidelines and practising good hygiene etiquette. I would say that the Government cannot wash people's hands for them, so there has to be buy-in from the public. I thank the 99% of people who have worked with the Government and together with their families and communities, because they have saved lives. However, there are people out there who have their own information and it seems that everyone becomes a virologist overnight after going on the Internet. It was the same when we experienced the downturn in the economy and the country was in peril, and everybody was an economist. I like to get my information and take my advice from health professionals and people who know their stuff, and that is what the Government is doing. It is taking that advice and then we have to make those important decisions.
However, it will be a Christmas like no other. With regard to pubs, churches, gyms and pitches, it is a difficult time for everybody.
Senator Carrigy talked about the really difficult times in nursing homes, the student nurses and about alcohol and minimum unit pricing, which is an issue under my Department. Many of the staff dealing with alcohol and tobacco were dealing with the Covid crisis. They are back now. I would love to bring in the minimum unit alcohol pricing. We want to bring it in and we feel it is necessary. There is an issue, which is that we are waiting on the jurisdiction in the North of Ireland to come with us. They are working on that and I hope that, early in the new year, we will be in a position to work with our colleagues in Northern Ireland. It is the wrong time in the Covid-19 crisis to bring that in but I would not like to bring it in unless we are working with our colleagues. It might send out the wrong signal as we want to work this on an all-island basis. It is on the top of our agenda to get it in. I pay tribute to the staff in my Department who are working extremely hard so we are all on the same page. It was introduced in Scotland, and in Glasgow it reduced alcohol purchases by 8%. Furthermore, it reduced deaths directly related to alcohol by 20%. The Senator is right regarding cheap alcohol that targets vulnerable people. Minimum pricing will increase the price but we are trying to affect vulnerable people who will abuse alcohol. We want to bring it in and there is a huge push to get that sorted.
On care homes, the Senator rightly said the passing away of his mother in that nursing home was a huge strain on his family. I cannot imagine the strain and hurt that it caused. The Senator addressed it and said that families are going through huge issues. It is something we need to work on but I thank the Senator for articulating that as sensitively as he could.
Senator O'Loughlin talked about pubs and places of worship. I congratulate and thank the Taoiseach for meeting with church leaders and faith leaders. They genuinely want to open up the places of worship. I have seen first hand that they have put the necessary restrictions in place to protect the public. I would like to think that in the coming weeks that work will be acknowledged and the churches will be allowed to open. However, we have to rely on NPHET and it will be a decision for the Cabinet sub-committee.
Senator Dolan talked about grief, funerals and the winter flu vaccine. I got the winter flu vaccine. I had to wait two or three weeks for it. I have always said it is something that, at a certain age, we all should get. Especially now with Covid, there are huge implications if the winter flu takes hold. It is important.