Introduction and up-to-date Public Health Guidance
Elizabeth Canavan –
Good morning everyone,
As a society, we have this week reached a very significant milestone with the long-awaited re-opening of our schools. For many of us this week will represent a return to some level of normality as we settle into the long-awaited school routine once again. While we are all glad to see our young people back in the classroom and amongst their friends, for most this will also come with a level of anxiety, which is to be expected.
While it is good for us to be returning to our daily routines, we must do so with a high degree of vigilance in order to minimise the risk posed by the virus.
It is now just over 6 months since the first case of COVID was identified in Ireland and we know that there is still a high level of anxiety out there in relation to the pandemic. This week, it appears that approximately 40% of people believe that the worst is still ahead. COVID is still with us and that we must learn to navigate life for the moment side by side with it.
Pro-actively managing the virus will allow us to protect our national priorities – to keep the schools open, to protect the vulnerable and to get vital health services back up and running as fully as possible.
But, repetitive as it sounds, it is our own personal actions which will make the most difference to our ability to live as normally as possible in the short to medium term.
We have a number of tools at our disposal in the effort to contain the virus and shield the vulnerable. And, importantly, we are all aware now of what those tools are:
New protocols, procedures and guidance in every area
Testing and tracing system
Inspection and enforcement reforms
That gives us an advantage in protecting our young people in schools, in protecting our communities and in living with the virus. But we have not changed our thinking much from when all this began, we know the best way to keep ourselves and the people around us safe; is by following the vital public health guidance:
Washing our hands regularly and thoroughly – especially after we have been out – no matter where.
Continuing to observe good cough and sneeze etiquette.
Maintaining social distancing and remembering to exercise judgement about where we spend time – keeping in mind that if a place doesn’t seem safe it probably isn’t safe. We all now have a pretty good sense of what a safe environment looks like.
Keeping our social interactions to a minimum definitely limits the opportunity for COVID to spread.
Wearing face coverings, on public transport, in shops and shopping centres, and in all indoor settings where social distancing is difficult. As the WHO have said, this is a sign of solidarity that also protects people’s health. Indeed, research this week suggests that the Irish population is adopting this practice, with 90% of adults reporting that they are now wearing facemasks in public places.
As we have said before, the virus is highly infectious and it is inevitable that outbreaks will happen. What is important is that when that happens, we have the public health infrastructure in place to contain the spread. But we all have a part to play in containing the virus.
Public health can act most effectively to contain it when they know where it is.
Therefore, it is vital that we know the symptoms of COVID-19 and if we experience them – If we feel unwell, have a high temperature, have a cough of any description, feel short of breath or have a change in our taste or smell, we need to self-isolate straight away and call our GP so they can arrange testing. Don’t ‘wait and see’, even if you think it’s a minor illness you can shake off, you may unwittingly have passed it on to someone more vulnerable. The system is designed to find those people and to stop the chain of infection.
Getting tested for the virus is the only way that we can keep track of where it is and who might be at risk. Remember that the COVID consultation with your GP, and the test itself are both free of charge.
We all need to make the responsible choices about COVID and make an effort to keep it under control for the safety of ourselves and the people around us.”
Kildare Restrictions Lifted
It was heartening for all of us but a particular relief for the people of Kildare to see the additional restrictions there lifted this week. The measures in place in Kildare, as in Laois and Offaly, were a huge imposition. The people of those counties showed great willingness to adopt those measures and adhere to the Public Health guidance. And it worked. It worked for them and it worked for the rest of us. Their success is a testament to how we can contain the virus and protect our communities when we make the right choices.
Package for Pubs, Bars and Nightclubs
We are all aware that this has been a year of unprecedented difficulty for pub and nightclub owners. They are hugely impacted, more than many other businesses by having to remain closed in the interest of public health.
Earlier this week a comprehensive package of supports was announced for pubs, bars and nightclubs which will remain closed to support national efforts to contain the virus.
The €16 million package has been made available in recognition of the economic impact of COVID on these businesses and to assist them in planning and adapting for their reopening.
It is hoped that this package along with other pre-existing measures will help to address some of the challenges they are experiencing.
Further information on supports available can be found on gov.ie.
These measures are in addition to the wage supports and other measures Government has in place for employers.
Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme
Since March over €2.7 billion of support has been given to over 69,500 employers via the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) covering over 600,000 workers.
Yesterday September 1st the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme replaced the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme.
The new scheme is an economy-wide support open to all sectors. It has been designed with the needs of employers and businesses at its heart and is simple to qualify for, straightforward to operate and very broad in its availability.
The scheme will operate until 31 March 2021. For details of qualification, please see gov.ie.
Other business support measures
Businesses are also continuing to engage with Government Departments and agencies in accessing the wide range of supports available to support them during the pandemic.
The new Restart Grant Plus has had a high take up with over 5,100 applications approved in the first fortnight and €35.5 million paid out to small businesses.
Earlier this week the Tánaiste announced the re-opening of the Covid-19 Loan Fund, with €15 million being made available to Microfinance Ireland for loans to micro-enterprises.
Pandemic Unemployment Payment – Returning to Work
Yesterday, approximately 225,000 people who were unemployed last week received their weekly payment under the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment scheme.
This is a reduction of around 5,400 on the number of people paid last week.
The overall number of PUP recipients represents an overall decrease of 365,600 or a reduction of 62% on the peak figure of 598,000 people who were receiving the payment on 5th May.
Since the start of the reopening, approximately 306,600 people have closed their claim as they have returned to work. We are getting there slowly, but we are getting there.
Clarification of measures for Cultural Sector
When we moved to the new nationwide restrictions we did so very quickly. And the application of the measures in some areas was not immediately clear.
The intention of Government, based on the public health advice, was to have as minimal an impact as possible while achieving a good reduction in the number of people congregating in larger groups.
Since then we have clarified the arrangements in a small number of areas.
Businesses such as museums, cinemas, theatres, and art galleries are deemed to be controlled environments. These venues can continue to operate where physical distancing and other protective measures can be maintained.
Individual groups attending these venues must be limited to six people from no more than three households and overall attendance must be limited to 50 people.
The businesses within this sector have gone to great lengths to keep the safety of their patrons at the forefront of their concerns.
We have also provided sectoral guidance for sport, youth work and some other areas.
This has been a very challenging year for Leaving Cert students across the country. They have been pioneers in a new method of evaluating learning. However, they can be confident that a huge amount of work has been done to deliver a Calculated Grades Model which recognises the exceptional circumstances they have experienced and which has equity and fairness at its core.
Under the Calculated Grades model, estimated marks from schools will be adjusted, as planned, to ensure that a consistent standard is applied in schools across the country, when judging the performance of students.
The model will not include data on how a school has historically performed at Leaving Certificate, placing a greater emphasis on the estimated marks provided by schools to individual students.
This removes any risk that a Leaving Certificate student’s results can be impacted by the performance of Leaving Certificate classes in his or her school in previous years.
The national standardisation process will ensure some consistency of approach across schools, and a degree of comparability for Leaving Certificate candidates of 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Although the process is still being run, the preliminary data indicates that there is no need for concern about students being unfairly disadvantaged by the process.
Package of Students Supports
Funding of €5 million was recently made available in funding to support the mental health and wellbeing of students in Further and Higher Education.
This will naturally be a time of great urgency around student support as Education Institutions plan their reopening for the coming year.
The funding will be used:
To Recruit additional Student Counsellors and Assistant Psychologists
For the implementation of the Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutes and the soon to be published National Student Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Framework
Mental Wellbeing has been a serious concern for young people in Ireland for some time. Concerns around Mental Health have been compounded this year by COVID-19. It is hoped that this funding will go some length towards building supportive environments and putting mental health interventions in place for all students in our education institutions.
COVID-19 Public Health Approach for Schools
We know that there are concerns out there about how schools are operating now that they have reopened. Living with COVID-19 means accepting that there will be some incidence of COVID in our communities and therefore in our schools. For that reason we have developed a School Pathway for Covid-19, setting out the public health approach to managing confirmed cases of Covid-19 within the school community, as well as offering guidance on measures to support infection prevention and control in schools.
The response to confirmed cases or outbreaks of Covid-19 in a school will be led and managed by the HSE. All decisions as to appropriate actions following a confirmed case or outbreak will be made by their teams in the context of a full Public Health Risk Assessment. Any actions to be taken by a school will be communicated directly by the HSE.
If the GP’s assessment is to refer the pupil or staff member for a test, their siblings or other household members should be removed from class until a test result is received.
When a case has been confirmed, the Medical Officer of Health and teams will liaise directly with the school, inform them of the confirmed case and undertake a Public Health Risk Assessment to inform any further actions and recommendations.
In the event of an outbreak, Public Health will determine between a range of possible interventions, from exclusion and testing of a small group or pod of pupils up to and including closure of an affected facility.
The best way to keep our children safe in schools is to follow the public health advice to suppress the virus in our homes and in our communities. Wash our hands, cover our coughs and sneezes, practice physical distancing, avoid crowds and wear a face mask where appropriate.
As you know, there has been a case reported already in the media. It is important that we know and are transparent about what is happening but it is equally important that we maintain privacy and are sensitive to the impact on individual children, families, school staff and the communities they serve.
Anyone who needs more information in respect of a case, to protect themselves or their family, will be contacted.
In some respects, we are in the most challenging phase of how we manage COVID-19.
Why is that?
Well, the ‘shutdown’ was simple to execute in many respects notwithstanding the impact we knew it would have. We all assumed it would be relatively short term. It was ‘new’ to us and we had a clear objective – ‘flatten the curve’ and avoid the very distressing scenes we saw in other countries.
But, we are six months in, we have done what we were asked to do. Broadly, the measures have worked but it has been at a cost economically, socially and mentally.
We also know more now. As Michael Ryan from the WHO said, ‘we cannot manage risks to zero’. We must resume some normality.
We have to live with this disease while not allowing it to get a foothold. That means staying vigilant, doing the simple things well, working in whatever way we can as individuals, business owners, employers and workers to adhere to the measures and protocols to outwit this disease. And when it strikes, catch it and contain it as quickly as we can.
As always, thank you for all you are doing. Everyone is contributing to where we are right now, with schools open and a great many businesses open. We have to continue to do what we have been doing, despite our frustration, even our boredom with this disease. If we can continue to do that, we can remain stable and move forward. It is in our own hands.