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Fresh Covid fears with 174 new cases confirmed as checkpoints back on roads

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QUESTIONS: Garda checkpoint on the N7 Kildare-Carlow flyover

QUESTIONS: Garda checkpoint on the N7 Kildare-Carlow flyover

Fergal Phillips

QUESTIONS: Garda checkpoint on the N7 Kildare-Carlow flyover

GARDAI were manning checkpoints last night stopping people travelling in and out of three counties - despite Health Minister Stephen Donnelly insisting: "This isn't a lockdown."

The number of coronavirus cases surged to a massive 174 yesterday, the highest level since early March, with 118 detected in the affected counties of Kildare, Laois and Offaly.

The acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn also warned that more bad news is on the way.

"While today's numbers of confirmed cases are high, they are not unexpected. As I said last night, we are expecting significant numbers of cases to be reported over the coming days," he said.

NPHET chief Professor Philip Nolan also warned; "The 14-day incidence per 100,000 population in Kildare, Laois and Offaly is worryingly high.

"While the national incidence stands at 16.3 per 100,000, in Kildare it stands at 130.3, in Laois it is 69.7 and in Offaly it is 89.8.

"Should these cases result in widespread transmission, it could undo a lot of the good work that we have done as a country."

Yesterday, more than 300 people were tested for Covid-19 at pop-up facilities in each of the three counties affected by the new lockdown.

So far, 120 tests have been carried out in in Newbridge, Co Kildare and and 130 at a reactivated testing centre on the outskirts of Tullamore, Co Offaly, where queues formed all morning.

A further 60 people have been tested at the Co Laois facility, which only opened later in the afternoon.

The testing facility in Newbridge is being run by the National Ambulance Service and will be open over the weekend.

It has capacity to carry out 45 swabs an hour, or 500 tests over yesterday and today.

Meanwhile, gardai from the surrounding nine counties are being drafted in to stage checkpoints on motorway ramps and other locations to make sure the tough new rules are obeyed.

Deputy Commissioner John Twomey said that "it is vital that people adhere to the public health regulations" in which people can't leave their own counties.

Confusion

"This operation is designed to support the restrictions that are being implemented locally in these three counties in an effort to stop the spread of Covid-19," he stated.

Anger and confusion greeted the sudden clampdown this weekend as Health Minister Stephen Donnelly defended the restrictions, saying: "This isn't a lockdown."

"All that is really happening here is the people in the three counties are being asked for non work-related travel to just stay in the county and to minimise the numbers of people gathering together," he said.

Restaurants, gyms and hotels are being forced to close down again and the 320,000 residents of Kildare, Laois and Offaly are being told to stay at home for the next two weeks.

The measures, branded "draconian" by former Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, come after a sharp rise of coronavirus infections linked to meat factory clusters.

Gardai operated a number of checkpoints across the region yesterday to remind motorists about the restrictions on travelling in and out.

Those caught breaking the rules can be prosecuted and fined up to €2,500 and/or jailed for up to six months. Regulations which will give gardai the power to enforce the restrictions are due to come into force this weekend and will last for two weeks.

However, acting CMO Ronan Glynn has warned there is no guarantee the restrictions will be lifted after a fortnight and that they could even be extended to other counties.

"Throughout this week, we have been testing all workers in facilities where outbreaks of Covid-19 have been identified as well as close contacts of those people who have received Covid-positive results," he said.

He added that last night's figures "are a reflection of these measures, with 118 of these cases linked to the counties of Kildare, Laois and Offaly".

In Newbridge, Co. Kildare, where a pop-up testing centre has opened this weekend people expressed their feelings on the lockdown.

Lucy Byrne said Friday night's clampdown was "a surprise and disappointing".

"It's the Government's failure almost. We seem to have similar cases to Dublin in terms of community transmission but it's the meat factories that are the cause," she told the Sunday World.

Healthcare worker Edel Campbell with her daughter Aoife said "I just want this to work. I'll do whatever it takes, to make sure they get back to school as well".

Her husband Paul fears that people might not be as co-operative this time around when it comes to sticking to the new rules.

"I'm not convinced you'll get the same level of commitment from people. A lot of people were due to go on holidays in the next two weeks. I think they'll still be packing their cars and going," he said. Musician Austin Condron said that, while he agrees with the restrictions, he lost out on a gig to play at a christening in Dublin this weekend, his first booking since the crisis began.

"It's hard, but hopefully if it works then they'll know what to do," he added.

Laura Coates, editor of local paper, The Leinster Leader, said that people don't understand the reasoning behind the county-wide restrictions.

"There's a huge amount of anger in Kildare. People are not happy that this has been unilaterally imposed - it's fairly well known where the clusters of infection are," she said. "Using county boundaries doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to a lot of people when you've got the likes of Athy in rural south Kildare lumped in with the likes of Leixlip and Celbridge which are practically Dublin suburbs."

"I think a lot of people's livelihoods are going to be needlessly affected, everybody knows it's hugely important to control the virus and control transmission but there's an awful lot of people who are just starting to get their lives back together who are going to get caught in the crossfire.

"There doesn't seem to be the same sense as there was before of we are in this together and we're going to pull together.

"I can see people flouting this because they just don't see a genuine rationale behind it," Ms Coates told the Sunday World.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly told RTE radio yesterday that the decision was based on the three "significant clusters" which has seen several hundred positive cases.

"It means there is a high prevalence of Covid-19 in the three counties at the moment."

He rejected claims the Government had known much earlier that there was a growing problem: "We certainly didn't know about this ten days ago."

"You don't implement measures like this because of a cluster in one factory on a particular day, because they are serious things to do. We are asking a lot of the people in the affected counties," added Mr Donnelly.

"The public health advice is that they've been watching this very carefully and there comes a point when you have to act to stop the spread in the community."

He said that the situation reached a point on Friday where officials "felt it was time to act and to act quickly".

Minister Donnelly also defended how the Government has handled concerns about the spread of the virus in meat factories from the beginning of the crisis.

"There were 1,100 cases confirmed at meat factories. Ireland was the first country in Europe to introduce protocols for meat factories, very extensive testing was done," he said.

As the news broke on Friday night Laois Offaly TD and former Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan described the restrictions on counties Laois, Offaly and Kildare as "draconian".

He said that "testing meat factory workers should have been ramped up weeks ago".

Irish Independent