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Coronavirus: economic sectors having to do with people, last to open, minister warns (Updated)

Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou

As testing found five new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, a new low, officials said all restrictions could ‘hopefully’ be lifted within two to three months, but offered no clear exit strategy while warning people to they must ‘learn to live’ with the coronavirus until a vaccine becomes available.

The five new laboratory-confirmed cases brought the total in the south of the island to 795. They were identified from 2,322 tests.

In the north meanwhile, Covid-19 cases stood at 108 including four deaths. No new cases were recorded there this week.

Comparing the low number of cases to the high number of tests, a member of the health ministry’s epidemiological team, virologist Dr Leontios Kostrikis spoke of a “a growing ray of light” pointing the way to an easing of the restrictions.

This was echoed by Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou: “We shall proceed with a phased easing of the [restrictive] measures. I hope that in two or three months all the measures can be lifted.”

Relaxations would be greenlit by the epidemiological data, while other indicators would be utilised to monitor the situation as certain restrictions are withdrawn.

On the return to full normality, the minister was less upbeat. “Unfortunately until we get a vaccine, we will have to learn to live with the coronavirus among us.

“So even once the measures are gradually lifted, self-protection measures must become part of our daily routine and we must continue to adhere to them. Otherwise there will be a spike in cases. Everyone needs to understand this.”

Ioannou hastened to add that no decision has yet been taken on when the first relaxations would come in or for which sectors of economic activity. That is expected to be discussed during a meeting next week chaired by President Nicos Anastasiades.

“Everything will be done in steps,” said Ioannou. “What I can tell you, is that as a general rule businesses or economic sectors having to do with people will be the last to open. The more contact a business has with people, the later it will reopen.”

The minister noted that authorities anticipate an uptick in confirmed Covid-19 carriers once some restraints are loosened, but this wouldn’t necessarily derail the gradual opening up of the economy, provided however the number of new cases stayed within certain bounds – which he did not divulge.

“Certain indices have been given based on which the [relaxation] measures will be assessed and, if deemed necessary, then we might have to revert to the prior situation.”

Ioannou did offer some details on the gradual drawdown. For instance, under a new decree, coming into force on Monday, both public and private hospitals – which to date have been treating emergencies only – will be allowed to make appointments for patients.

This would be followed with a new decree a few days later, allowing hospitals to carry out previously scheduled surgeries.

It was also announced on Thursday that implementation of the second and final stage of the national health system, Gesy is to be pushed back three months to the beginning of September.

“For the hospitals there is a plan in place. There is a scheduled meeting with the president of the republic, where it will be analysed how public hospitals will be functioning in a coronavirus environment,” said Ioannou.

“There is short-term hospitalisation, handling coronavirus cases, but some hospitals will operate on a mixed basis where some wards will treat coronavirus patients and others will be for non-coronavirus patients.”

Asked about the airports, Ioannou said the government will listen to the views of the experts “and see what they tell us about how the airports can start operating again.”

It was a sensitive matter, given the risk of re-importing persons infected with Covid-19.

“We need to think it through. One step that could be taken is to request people wanting to travel to Cyprus to test negative for the coronavirus. We hope that technology can move forward so that testing and lab results can be done faster.”

On the 800 random tests among the general population, announced on Thursday, Ioannou said the results would indicate the spread of the disease in the community, as well as provide a breakdown per district and per gender.

Samples from the randomly selected persons will be taken starting Friday and ending next Tuesday.

These tests would yield useful information; and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has requested to see the data as soon as possible.

Although the confirmed cases trend remains the key metric, the government is also monitoring the load on intensive care units.

Over the past two weeks ICU occupancy has been steady at the Covid-19 reference hospital (Famagusta) as well as at the two general hospitals in Nicosia and Limassol.

This was a positive indicator, Ioannou said, given that the number of cases is increasing in the interim.

 

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