By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland expects its number of coronavirus cases to increase to around 15,000 by the end of the month from 223 currently, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Monday, as the government advised against all non-essential travel overseas until then.

Ireland has so far closed all schools, universities, bars and childcare facilities until March 29 and limited mass gatherings in a bid to curb the spread of the virus that has so far led to two deaths.

Publishing a plan covering everything from energy security to policing aimed at reducing the economic and social disruption as best the government can, Varadkar said he expected Monday’s 30% daily rise to continue for the time being and pleaded with the public to help slow the surge.

“We would expect that by the end of the month there would be maybe 15,000 people who would have tested positive for COVID-19. Most of those will not need treatment but a proportion will need to be hospitalized and we need to make sure that it doesn’t happen at the same time,” Varadkar told a news conference.

“It’s not about locking down the country tomorrow and stopping the virus spreading. That’s not possible. … Nobody can predict it, but I definitely think we’re going to be dealing with this for many months, not weeks.”

Ireland upgraded its travel advice, urging those not involved in essential services like haulage to stay at home. Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said that included travel to neighboring Britain, but not the British region of Northern Ireland, which shares an open border with the Irish Republic.

Varadkar added that 100,000 or more workers could find themselves unemployed because of the economic fallout over the next couple of weeks and that he was confident banks would be able to offer forbearance to mortgage holders who lose their jobs.

Ireland’s economy was the fastest growing in the European Union before the outbreak, bringing the unemployment rate down to 4.8% and its workforce up to a record 2.36 million people.

Some 20,000 alone presented at unemployment offices on Friday to apply for jobless benefits, the government said.


After struggling to implement “social distancing” measures, many pubs announced voluntary closures before the shutdown, and restaurants around the country continued to follow suit on Monday as the industry’s main lobby group called for the government to shut the entire industry down.

Industry body Retail Excellence Ireland also reported on Monday that many of its members had temporarily shut their doors, calling it the “hardest and most challenging day in Irish retail history.”

Varadkar said his public health team’s advice, however, was that restaurants should not close and that they had an important function.

Ireland’s chief medical officer, Tony Holohan, said the next seven days were vital in the battle to slow the spread, urging citizens to reduce social contacts to only a handful of people and keep 2 meters away (6.6 feet) from anyone else in shops and supermarkets.

As the government prepared to source additional beds for recovering patients in facilities such as hotels, Health Minister Simon Harris said a massive recruitment drive would begin on Tuesday aimed at retired doctors, part-time healthcare workers and university students with sufficient skills to help

“We will hire everybody that we can to work in the Irish health service for this pandemic. We need you, we want you, your country needs you,” Harris said.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Alex Richardson, Peter Graff and Peter Cooney)