Another 27 newly discovered cases of coronavirus were reported in the State on Thursday , by far the biggest daily jump in numbers since the start of the pandemic.
The total number of cases in the Republic stood at 70, up from 43 on Wednesday.
The massive increase in cases lies behind the Government’s decision to impose a wide range of restrictions on schools and social gatherings earlier on Thursday.
The first case in the Republic was reported on February 29th.
There are now nine clusters of cases, each involving between two and six cases, according to Dr Holohan.
Of the additional 27 cases, 22 derived from contact with a previously confirmed case, two involved healthcare worker and three involved travel from an at-risk area.
Dr Holohan said two of the new cases involved community transmission – meaning public health doctors do know where the infection originated.
There are now a total of five community-acquired cases in Ireland. Six patients, including three of the new cases, are in intensive care and one patient has been officially reported as having died from the disease, on Wednesday.
Asked about reports of a second death of a patient, in Cork, Dr Holohan said “we haven’t had another death confirmed to us”.
Asked about the speed at which Thursday’s measures were introduced, Dr Holohan said these were always expected “at some point in time but it’s impossible to predict when until you get there”.
Ireland still had a relatively small number of cases, he insisted, and the risk of contracting the disease, while real, was low.
There were still too few confirmed cases to go on to build up an estimate of the number of cases in the community, he said.
Dr Holohan acknowledged the difference in approach being taken in Ireland and the UK, where schools remain open.
“We’ve assessed the situation from our point of view, and closing schools is an important part of our strategy particularly in relation to protecting older vulnerable people.”
Ireland made the decision on Thursday to move to a delay phase in relation to Covid-19, he confirmed.
“The European Centre for Disease Control have now advised early, decisive, rapid, coordinated and comprehensive implementation of social distancing measures. Ireland has today responded to this advice.”
He added the National Public Health Emergency Team would meet again on Thursday evening to continue to review Ireland’s response.
Delay phase is designed to interrupt the transmission of the Covid-19 virus, by advising reductions on social interactions.
“This phase requires a community effort, every citizen acting responsibly in order to protect our vulnerable and elderly members of society,” the department said.
Earlier, the Government announced that schools, colleges and other public facilities would close in the Republic from 6pm on Thursday for at least two weeks in response to the spread of the virus.
It also urged people not to engage in panic buying as reports emerged of long queues in supermarkets.
Minister for Health Simon Harris said he understood that people were worried and that they wanted to make provision for themselves and their families.
But he said everyone should consider the “unintended consequences of taking something that somebody else requires”.
Minister for Business Heather Humphreys said there was no need to stockpile because there was sufficient stocks in place. However, panic buying would “cause a problem” in the supply chain that currently did not exist.
On Thursday morning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the measures being announced would remain in place until March 29th and would be kept under review.
* Schools, colleges and childcare facilities to close
* Cultural institutions to close
* Indoor gatherings of more than 100 people should be cancelled
* Outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people should be cancelled
* Public transport will continue to operate
* People should continue to go to work, but those who can work from home should do so
* Shops, cafes and restaurants to stay open
* Measures begin at 6pm this evening and last until March 29th
* Public transport will continue to operate.
“I know that some of this is coming as a real shock and it is going involve big changes in the way we live our lives. I know that I am asking people to make enormous sacrifices. We’re doing it for each other,” Mr Varadkar said, speaking in Washington DC.
“Together, we can slow the virus in its tracks and push it back. Acting together, as one nation, we can save many lives. Our economy will suffer. It will bounce back.”
The Northern Executive has decided against following the lead of the Irish Government and is not ordering the closure of schools and universities in an attempt to limit the impact of the coronavirus.
The North’s First Minister Arlene Foster also complained on Thursday evening that the Northern Executive was not informed in advance of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s decision in Washington to announce a number of actions to address the Covid-19 emergency.
Ms Foster said it was “disappointing” that the Executive was not apprised in advance of the Government’s decision. She said the Executive had “no prior knowledge” of Mr Varadkar’s announcement.
British prime minister Boris Johnson ramped up the UK’s efforts to combat coronavirus on Thursday, moving the government to the “delay” phase and telling British people with even mild symptoms to stay at home for seven days.
However, he said he would not follow the example of Ireland and Italy and close schools to limit the spread of the disease. “We are not closing schools now, the scientific advice is this could do more harm than good.” But he said that the advice would be under review.
Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said he currently expected the UK would reach the peak of its coronavirus outbreak in 10 to 14 weeks’ time. “If you move too early, people get fatigued,” he said, referring to the UK government’s response. “This is a long haul.”
While sporting and cultural events in Ireland have been cancelled, the Cheltenham racing festival continued on Thursday.
Italy, the centre of Europe’s coronavirus pandemic, has hit the milestone of 1,000 deaths since it saw its first cases in mid-February. The country’s positive cases continued their upward trend on Thursday, registering 15,113 confirmed cases and the death toll hit 1,016.
As concern mounts over the impact on the Irish public health system, doctors gave their first public warning on Thursday night of the possible impact on treatment decisions for those requiring intensive care.
Intensive care professionals issued a statement, saying: “We expect that there will be significant challenges in the coming weeks in terms of demand for our services.
“We aim to provide care of an appropriate nature to our patients as always, but we do expect that we will have to make triage decisions, which will be challenging. At all times, we will communicate with the patient and their families.
“Intensive care will need to be directed to those patients who are most likely to benefit, and in this instance, to save the most lives. Although we frequently change the direction of care from intensive care to palliative care, we never stop caring for patients especially at the end of life.”
The statement was issued on behalf of the Intensive Care Society of Ireland (ICSI), Joint Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine of Ireland (JFICMI) and the Irish Association of Critical Care Nursing (IACCN) which represents healthcare professionals who provide critical care in Ireland.
Also on Thursday, the Government issued new guidance on civil and public service working arrangements.
It says staff redeployment across the civil and public services could be required to ensure the maintenance of essential services, which is prioritised in the new advice.
It also calls for the reassignment of staff within organisations to prioritise the most critical services. And it says employers should consider extending and staggering opening hours, as well as the introduction of flexible working.
Kevin Callinan, general secretary of the Fórsa trade union, called on State departments to maintain discussions with the union and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to manage the situation appropriately.
Speaking after Mr Varadkar’s announcement, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said thousands of lives can be saved through a collective national response to the measures.
Mr Coveney said the measures being introduced were unprecedented in their scale and effect across society.
“Never before has such drastic action been taken in face of a public health threat,” he told a press briefing in Government Buildings.
This was not being taken lightly but was based on the advice of the best public health experts, Mr Coveney said.
“The irony is that in order to pull together we are asking people to stay apart. The closures proposed will disrupt the everyday connectivity that makes us who we are,” he said.
The Government is to publish the advice received from the National Public Health Emergency Team shortly and individual Ministers are to hold briefings on the impact of the measures in their respective areas. A special Cabinet meeting is to take place on Thursday evening.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said the measures were taken in the light of a significant increase in the number of cases, a number of ICU hospitalisation, one death, some clusters of cases, cases in hospital settings and evidence of community transmission.
However, the outbreak here was still at an early stage, he said.
He urged employers to stagger work times and break times. Restrictions are to be imposed for visitors to hospital, nursing homes and prisons, and spacing measures will be introduced in homeless shelters.
The limits on mass gatherings are “clear recommendations”, he said.
The first death from the disease occurred on Wednesday at Naas General Hospital. The patient, an elderly woman, had an underlying condition that was terminal.
As of Wednesday evening, there were 43 confirmed cases in the Republic and 18 in Northern Ireland.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) for the first time on Wednesday labelled the coronavirus a pandemic, adding Italy and Iran were on the front line of the disease and other countries would soon join them.