Ireland’s Six Nations rugby match with Italy in Dublin next month should be cancelled due to the coronavirus epidemic, the health minister said Tuesday.

The National Public Health Emergency Team, convened to help coordinate Ireland’s response to the outbreak, advised that the upcoming match on March 7 “not to go ahead on public health grounds” as Italy became the latest country to be badly hit by the virus.

“The cancellation of mass gatherings in this phase is justified in exceptional circumstances,” said Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer.

“Today’s recommendation to cancel the Ireland v Italy rugby match is based on the rapidly evolving nature of the outbreak in northern Italy, and the consequent risk of importation of cases into Ireland were the match to go ahead,” he added.

Minister for Health Simon Harris said he welcomed the recommendation.

“Today’s recommendations reflect the continuous assessment and adaptation capability of Ireland’s response… which will be ongoing as the situation unfolds,” he said.

Health chiefs also called for an “increase in the level of public awareness campaigns at ports, airports, schools and public offices, to commence immediately”.

The Irish Rugby Football Union responded later Tuesday by saying it was seeking an “urgent meeting” with Harris as to “the specific reasoning” behind calling for the cancellation of the Italy match.

An IRFU statement added: “Until such time as the IRFU has had contact with the Minister (Harris) and gets an understanding of the government’s strategic policy on travel to and from Ireland and the cancellation of mass gatherings, it is not in a position to comment further.”

Ireland are currently third in the championship, having lost to second-placed England on Sunday, with France, who have already played Italy, leading the pack.

Ireland’s match with Italy, who are bottom, is set to be the penultimate fixture for both teams, while England’s trip to Rome on March 14 has also been thrown into doubt.

The cancellation of the games would throw the competition into turmoil, although the 2001 competition was similarly affected by a foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain, with the fixtures being completed months later.

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