March 9, 2020 / 3:49 PM / 25 days ago

Ireland axes St. Patrick's Day parades, sets aside coronavirus funds

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland canceled all St. Patrick’s Day parades due to take place across the country next week over the risk of a further spread of coronavirus as the government set aside 3 billion euros to tackle the infection.

Ireland has so far reported 24 cases after three more were identified on Monday, among over 110,000 globally. Ireland’s chief medical officer said that while the country was still containing the virus, it would eventually move into the stage of delaying its transmission and mitigating the impact.

The March 17 public holiday is celebrated with parades in towns and villages. The flagship gathering in Dublin that draws some 500,000 revelers from around the world each year kicks off the capital’s tourism season.

“It’s possible that we are facing events that are unprecedented in modern times,” Acting Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told a news conference on Monday.

A package that could cost up to 2.4 billion euros was agreed to increase sick pay to enable all workers to self-isolate if necessary, while Ireland’s already stretched health department will be given an additional 435 million euros this year.

An initial package for business will include 200 million euros in liquidity support for affected firms, funding that Varadkar said was set aside for a “no deal Brexit” last year but would now be re-purposed.

Ireland has enjoyed a tourism boom in recent years after the sector recovered from global and domestic financial crises a decade ago, with visitors hitting a fresh high in each of the last five years, reaching almost 11 million in 2019.

Dalata Hotel Group, the largest hotel operator in Ireland, said on Monday it had observed a significant recent reduction in bookings and increase in cancellations, but that it was too early to estimate the financial impact.

The St Patrick’s Day parades in Dublin and Ireland’s second city of Cork - attended by about 50,000 people - were last postponed in 2001 due to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. They were re-arranged and held two months later.

St. Patrick’s Day has since been turned into a five-day festival and organizers say the economic benefit from the Dublin parade alone is in excess of 73 million euros ($83.5 million).

Varadkar said Ireland’s economy, which data last week showed likely grew faster than any other in Europe again last year, was well placed to absorb the hit and that the state would borrow additional funds if necessary to pay for the stimulus. Ireland has run a budget surplus for the last two years.

Varadkar added that he would be able to address whether his Fine Gael party would be prepared to discuss being part of a new government in the next couple of days, potentially speeding up slow moving talks since a Feb. 8 election.

Editing by Alison Williams, Andrew Cawthorne, William Maclean

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