Patients in Ireland at risk of spreading coronavirus and who refuse to be put in isolation could be subjected to compulsory detention.
Similar enforcement powers are already in place for infectious diseases such as TB, and moves to extend them to the new virus are being explored by the Department of Health.
It would mean a patient who has the virus would be compelled to remain in isolation until they are deemed to no longer present a risk of infecting others with the virus.
Dr Kevin Kelleher, the assistant director of child and public health, said yesterday that detention legislation was already available but the new coronavirus was expected to be added to list of diseases that it addressed.
The move marks a turnaround for the Department of Health, which earlier this week insisted: “The Department is not currently planning additional measures related to quarantine or enforced isolation.”
However, in a clarification issued last night it confirmed it now planned to add the new coronavirus to “the list of infectious diseases such as smallpox, which allows a doctor to detain a probable case of infection in the highly unlikely event that a person refuses to comply with infection prevention and control protocols.
“This was also done for the Sars epidemic in 2002. It is not envisaged that such powers would in fact be used.”
Dr Kelleher said that before resorting to compulsory detention, authorities here would make every effort to persuade the patient to voluntarily agree to isolation. There appears to have been good co-operation abroad in countries where coronavirus cases have already been diagnosed.
More than 65 people in Ireland have been tested for coronavirus and all proved negative.
Public health doctors and hospitals are erring on the side of caution and adopting a low threshold when deciding who to test.
The regular winter flu remains in circulation here and continues to present a risk, claiming 85 lives so far this season.
Meanwhile, China reported a large spike in coronavirus cases yesterday but the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the numbers were due to inclusion of people suspected of having the virus for the first time, alongside positive tests.
China’s Hubei province, which is worst hit, found there were 15,000 more cases than previously noted.
The number escalated from 45,000 to 60,000 in the world in a single day.
In London, a woman diagnosed with coronavirus first went to A&E in an Uber to seek help, it has emerged.
The patient, who contracted the virus in China, turned up at Lewisham hospital’s A&E department in south London on Sunday and spoke to staff at the reception desk.
Public Health England (PHE) has been advising anyone who thinks they may have symptoms of coronavirus to stay at home and call the NHS, which will send out a specialist team if need be.
Two staff from Lewisham hospital are now in isolation at home after coming into contact with the infected woman, who is believed to be a Chinese national.
The Greenwich NHS Trust said: “All staff who had direct contact with the patient have been contacted, including two members of staff who are undergoing active surveillance at home for a 14-day period as a precautionary measure following advice.”