Health Service Executive Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry said there is cause for hope with some “stabilisation” of the coronavirus but it does not mean Level 5 restrictions should be eased sooner.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Dr Henry said what we are seeing across Europe is that if we let up too early on restrictions and people let up on measures “we see rapid deterioration”.

However, he said Ireland is in an improved position with a falling R rate and positivity rate and a drop of cases among two particular age groups, younger people and the older vulnerable groups.

Addressing peoples’ hopes of meeting up for Christmas, Dr Henry said they want people to come together after what has been a “torrid year” but he added that “we must see through these measures first and get transmission down to very low levels”.

He said they want Christmas to be safe so people can congregate safely and visit homes safely but made it clear that they also want January and February to be safe.

“Ultimately decisions are made by government not just based on public health guidance but wider economic interests.”

He said the HSE is currently looking at a range of Covid-19 testing strategies to ensure they are safe and effective and there are 23 tests on the market with two stages.

He said the PCR test is a “good one” which shows a high standard of sensitivity.

“If we had an antigen test that is 80%of the sensitivity of the PCR test then they could miss one in five cases.

“We don’t want to miss one in five cases in a nursing home setting or other vulnerable setting.”

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Dr Henry said they are finding at this stage that some claims of sensitivity by the companies are not matched with field evaluation.

“We want to see a standard where we can give a good degree of assurance to people that this test they are using, fast as it may be, that it is providing a fairly accurate result.

“We will dispassionately and objectively look at these tests first to validate them and secondly test them out in different settings. “

He said it will take time and does not expect those tests to be available for those hoping to travel by Christmas.

“Unlikely, because we need to validate those tests,” he said.

Within nursing home settings, Dr Henry said they are still seeing a number of Covid-19 outbreaks with around seven outbreaks of major concern based on the size of the outbreak and impact on staffing.

“Once it gets into a vulnerable setting it is virulent and difficult to control,” he added.

He said there has been a reduction in demand for testing and tracing of late and a fall from GP referrals of 30% also.

Dr Henry said they currently have 450 contact tracers and continue to recruit to get to the figure of 800.

He also reminded people that the HSE are not just providing a Covid-19 service as they have returned to screening and other services and said hospitals are open for business and safe places to go to.

Regarding schools he said they provide “a rapid turnaround” of testing and once there is a case identified an assessment is carried out immediately on who needs to be tested within that school setting.

Meanwhile, Professor Sam McConkey, an Infectious Disease Specialist at the Royal College of Surgeons, has said he is confident that Ireland will move out of a “Red” travel zone by December.  

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne Prof McConkey said the suppression of Covid-19 in the last number of weeks would suggest that “more open travel” will be possible

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