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Hopes of easing restrictions grow as daily cases down again

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Dr Tony Holohan

Dr Tony Holohan

Colin Keegan

Dr Tony Holohan

The most optimistic signal yet that we are on course to begin easing lockdown in just over a week has emerged.

Latest figures show the number of new daily cases of the coronavirus are at their lowest since the early stages of restrictive measures.

Only 137 newly-diagnosed cases were reported yesterday, while the number of patients in intensive care has dropped to 76 from a high of 140.

Fewer than two cases are being admitted to hospital each day, down from four to six last week, according to Professor Philip Nolan of Maynooth University, who is advising the Government on virus trends.

He also revealed that the R number - indicating how many people one individual with the virus is likely to infect - has fallen to 0.5 from 0.6, down from five or six in late February. By mid-March it was around 1.6.

Spread

"There has been great success up to now and we need to find ways to keep the spread of the virus at a very low level for many weeks to come," he said.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said he was "increasingly hopeful" we can start exiting lockdown on a phased basis from May 18.

"We are seeing a range of trends that give us reason for optimism," he said, and added that there is a continued pattern of improvement that gives "reason for encouragement", but he wants to see more improvement before coming to a formal assessment at the end of next week.

"These weeks are just as important as the first weeks of the response. Our behaviours are crucial to maintaining our progress," he said.

He was speaking as the deaths of another 29 people from the virus were confirmed, bringing the toll to 1,403.

The spread of the virus in community residential centres, including nursing homes, is slowing.

So far, there have been 5,485 cases in these centres, with an increase of 115 yesterday compared with Wednesday; 4,309 of these have been in nursing homes, a rise of 41 in the space of a day.

Asked if he and his officials would meet with vintners, who are anxious to fast-forward the opening of pubs ahead of the roadmap timetable, Dr Holohan said his role was to give public health advice.

It is a matter for various sectors to apply that to their own sectors, which they know best, he added, saying they should "take ownership" of the advice and shape their own plans.

Questioned on whether the Leaving Cert should proceed in July, now that the trends in the spread of the virus are more favourable, he said it is important that social distancing and the amount of time spent in close contact were observed.

It is a matter for the Department of Education to decide, as its officials know more about the "operation of exams" than his team.

Cancer

Meanwhile, it was confirmed yesterday that many cancer patients are now losing out on the chance of seeing if they will respond to new treatment due to a slowdown in the number of new drug trials.

Beaumont Hospital oncologist Dr Bryan Kennedy said the number had significantly slowed, and a planned trial to assess a treatment for pancreatic cancer is among those which have had to be put on hold.

The trials, overseen by Cancer Trials Ireland, can offer a potential option to patients who are no longer responding to conventional treatment.

"The major reason is that the Health Products Regulatory Authority and ethics committees are prioritising approving Covid-19-related trials at the moment," Dr Kennedy said.

He added that starting new trials requires many visits to hospital to educate staff, and these cannot happen due to lockdown, transport problems and staff having to work from home.