covid crisis | 

Professor warns we could be 'sleepwalking' into new lockdown as ministers ‘drag their heels’

Public health expert Professor Anthony Staines has said we could be facing a 'Winter of Discontent'

Professor Anthony Staines, head of health systems at Dublin City University

Ali Bracken

As Covid restrictions tighten and anxiety rates soar over what will become of Christmas, public health expert Professor Anthony Staines has warned that government “slowness” to implement public health measures could land us back in lockdown.

All school-going children should already be wearing masks, and vaccinating youngsters should be under way as we battle the fourth wave of the virus, according to Professor Staines, who is head of health systems at Dublin City University (DCU).

“It makes absolutely no sense that all children from junior infants aren’t wearing masks, like they have been in America and other countries for over a year,” he said.

“Masks should be worn by all schoolchildren. There’s nothing magical about turning nine in terms of Covid. But if every child in every school wore a mask, it would help a little.”

The professor is a member of the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group (ISAG) for Covid-19, a voluntary and independent body that advocates for an elimination strategy to tackle the virus.

He said the Government’s unwillingness to roll out high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters across the school system is perplexing, given that it was recommend by its own expert group. Such filters have been recommended to help battle Covid-19 transmission.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard some parents are clubbing together and buying HEPA filters for their kids’ classrooms, when they haven’t been provided by the Department of Education,” he said.

"Of course, not all parents could afford to do this and they shouldn’t have to.

“ISAG were recommending HEPA filters be placed in all schools in the summer, as were other experts. But there was no willingness from Government to react to the scientific evidence of its benefits.

“It’s just another example of how slow they are to introduce recommended public health measures to curb the spread of Covid. Clearly it is spreading in schools.”

The public health expert also expressed dismay that vaccinating children has not yet been rolled out, despite the European Medicines Agency (EMA) sanctioning it for those under 12 a couple of weeks ago.

While its rollout does seem to be on the cards over the next few weeks, this is “simply not fast enough”.

“It’s just not good enough. Niac should have held an emergency meeting as soon as it was approved by the EMA. It should be happening right now, instead of arguing over children aged nine and up wearing masks in school,” Professor Staines said.

“It seems the Government just drags its heels and takes far too long to implement these changes. It was the same with mandatory hotel quarantine last year. We only got on board with that when the horse had bolted.

“We don’t have the luxury of time with this virus. We could well be sleepwalking our way back into another lockdown with all these delayed decisions.

“I do not favour lockdowns. But if it does happen, it is the Government’s fault. Parents, children and the rest of society have done their part.”

We remain in uncharted territory because of the new variant, he added.

“We don’t know and we won’t know for two to three weeks the impact of Omicron. There is some evidence from clinical data that it spreads faster. But it is a little soon for us to have the full picture of what it is capable of.

"But boosters will help. One way or the other, we are heading into a winter of discontent. All we can do now is keep our fingers crossed.”

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