DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland on Friday extended its stay-at-home coronavirus restrictions until May 5, as Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the curbs had significantly slowed the spread of the outbreak but more work was required to end it.
Ireland has shut bars, restaurants and non-essential retail outlets, and Varadkar told people late last month not to travel more than two kilometres (1.2 miles) from their home or visit friends and family until this Sunday.
He said it was the government’s “fervent hope” that it would begin to unwind the restrictions after May 5. But there was no guarantee, and the measures would only be reversed bit by bit.
“What we are doing is difficult but is making a difference and we have to keep going. We need to persevere and we need to maintain our discipline and resolve,” Varadkar, the acting prime minister after an inconclusive February election, said in a televised address.
“It really does depend on what happens over the course of the next two or three weeks and how people respond to our call to continue.. those behaviours.”
Confirmed COVID-19 cases in Ireland rose to 8,089 on Friday, with 288 deaths, but the average day-on-day case growth has fallen to 9% from 15% a week ago, and officials said a stabilisation in intensive care admissions was encouraging.
The shutdown had led to over 219,000 workers signing up for a new wage subsidy scheme by Friday, meaning the state is now supporting nearly 30% of the labour force including emergency coronavirus jobless payments that more than trebled the unemployment rate to 16.5%.
Research from Ireland’s main business lobby, IBEC, found on Friday that sectors closed due to restrictions accounted for 44% of all private sector employment with those accounting for a further 30% operating on a limited basis.
Prior to the March 27 lockdown, Ireland had banned all non-essential travel within the country and added clubs, gyms, and hairdressers to pub, school and university closures. But people could travel beyond the 2-km radius limit, once they maintained social distancing.
Cillian De Gascun, chair of the coronavirus expert advisory group, reiterated the view of many officials advising the government that the growth rate of new cases needed to drop to zero before restrictions could be eased.
Health officials are also particularly concerned about the spread in nursing homes. Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan said there were clusters of two or more cases in 135 of the country’s 550 retirement homes, which along with other care homes accounted for more than half of all deaths.
Officials have said testing and contact tracing must also be scaled up prior to easing the restrictions on people’s movement. De Gascun, head of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, said he expected currently constrained testing capacity to increase dramatically over the next 7-10 days.
Varadkar said Ireland would also closely watch how Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and elsewhere fare with their planned easing of restrictions.
“It’s not an experiment we are willing to take as yet, but as is often the case with this virus, other countries that are hit first and hit harder at least allow us some guidance,” he said.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Jane Merriman, Kirsten Donovan and Hugh Lawson)