Close the Border to help in battle against Covid, urges specialist

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Ireland should enter into meaningful dialogue with Northern Ireland about closing the Border as a short- term measure if it is serious about tackling the spread of Covid-19, a leading Irish consultant in public health medicine working in Australia has advised.

Niall Conroy, a consultant in public health medicine in Queensland, said that Ireland “has done a number of things wrong” in its approach to tackling the spread of the virus.

Australia has reduced the spread of Covid-19 more effectively than many other nations by limiting and monitoring those entering the country, in a regimented manner.

“In Queensland, we have had about 1,200 cases of Covid in total, with six deaths. That’s because, early on, we implemented mandatory hotel quarantine for new arrivals coming into the country.

“What that means, in practice, is that you catch new cases on their way into Australia, where you can isolate them. Then the public health units can get on with managing the cases that were already here.

“We think this is essential as otherwise it’s like trying to manage a flood in your bathroom while the tap is still running. Imported cases cause a lot of new transmission chains, so it’s very difficult to get your case numbers down while new cases are continually coming into the country,” he told the Sunday Independent.

Mr Conroy, an infectious diseases specialist, favours the method of elimination in terms of tackling Covid. This involves closing or restricting borders and keeping areas under strict lockdown until the virus rate is reduced to almost zero.

“My solution would be to look at the possibility of elimination. Let’s properly engage with Northern Ireland, the UK and Europe to see if the border controls could be a possibility. Let’s engage civil society in Northern Ireland and see if we can get them on board.

“Let’s do a proper feasibility study and have serious negotiations with our neighbours. That doesn’t have to interrupt any of the current planning.

“But it should happen. If, after a serious effort, the politicians can’t come up with a solution, then I think that will be easier for the elderly and vulnerable populations to accept than a simple ‘it’s impossible’ response.

“While the political contexts and geography are different, a lot of people said that border quarantine was impossible in Australia and New Zealand too,” he added.

One of Ireland’s main failures is that “pandemic planning” was never resourced properly, according to Mr Conroy.

“The role of the Director of the Health Protection and Surveillance Centre has been vacant for years, and was only ever filled on an interim basis, because the contract was so unattractive. That’s the person who would be most responsible for pandemic planning in the country. But the HSE wouldn’t even offer a consultant contract for the role.

“So they were asking public health medicine consultants from overseas to come to Ireland to take up a non-consultant job. Unsurprisingly, they couldn’t get anyone. That’s a reflection of how we viewed pandemic preparation, which is a big deal in other countries.”

He added that “one of the big mistakes Ireland has made” is in how it uses its public health units and specialist public health staff.

“Ireland has world-class doctors and nurses. I’ve been lucky enough to work with them. They’re extraordinarily highly regarded around the world. But they’re just underutilised in Ireland.

“When public health doctors qualify as consultants in Ireland, they’re not hired as consultants, so they don’t have the authority and autonomy and decision-making capacity that they need to do their job.

“Ireland is the only country that I’m aware of where this happens, and despite the enormous impact this is having on recruitment into the public health units and the ability of the public health doctors to do their jobs properly, it hasn’t changed in nine months.

“So, as things stand, during a pandemic, Ireland has yet to employ a single consultant in public health medicine. It’s mind-boggling.

“And it’s why people like me and others are working overseas managing Covid… because we are able to do our jobs properly.”

Source: Irish News