The National Public Health Emergency team (Nphet) is to meet today to assess the threat of the Omicron variant and is expected to recommend the introduction of new restrictions to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
It comes as concerns mount over the volume of cases of the virus being reported here.
Ivan Perry, Professor of Public Health in the School of Epidemiology at University College Cork, said that he is concerned the health system will face ‘significant’ pressure in January.
“It is becoming clear that it [the Omicron variant] is significantly more transmissible than the Delta variant. There is some immune escape so the vaccines are not going to be as effective. What we have learned in the last few weeks would make us concerned that we would be facing significant pressure on the health system in January.”
Professor Perry said that a strong case can be made from a public health perspective to close the primary schools this Friday.
“It is not going to make a dramatic change, but I think you can make a very strong case for maybe closing the schools this Friday as it would reduce a bit of mixing. We have to be more restrictive in our movements. It would also send a signal to us all to be that bit more careful over Christmas. We have this wave of Omicron cases coming our way. The longer we can delay this wave more people will have been boosted and its potential impact can be reduced.”
Cork Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer has called on the Minister for Education to give consideration to closing schools this week instead of next Wednesday.
“A lot of schools currently are experiencing a lot of absenteeism both in terms of staff and students. Our primary schools are places where you have a lot of unvaccinated people and I think it would be appropriate to allow the schools to close ahead of Christmas. Given that the new variant is highly transmissible, it would make sense for the schools to close early,” he said.
“You have a lot of unvaccinated people in the school population in primary schools. We have a lot of intergenerational mixing coming up and I think it would reduce exposure and socialisation,” he added.
The Tánaiste Leo Vardakar said yesterday that he expects the new strain could become dominant in Ireland as soon as next week or before Christmas.
He said that recommendations are expected from Nphet around limiting social mixing, close contacts and measures around international travel.
“I would expect on Thursday that there will be some more recommendations around the management of close contacts, some recommendations designed to decrease the amount of social mixing, and recommendations around international travel,” he said.
“If it is the case restrictions are required to protect life and public health, then that’s what we will do.”
Cabinet could meet on Friday to assess the advice from Nphet.
Last night, 4,235 new cases of Covid-19 were reported with figures from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre showing that 7,341 cases of the virus were reported in Cork in the two weeks to December 13.
Dr. Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health said that anyone planning to spend Christmas with older family members, anyone immunocompromised or vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19, should now be taking extra precautions.
“Avoid crowds, limit your contacts, work from home unless absolutely necessary, risk assess your environments and make safe choices over the coming days and weeks.
“Everyone should be aware that Omicron spreads very easily and we have now identified community transmission in Ireland, to the extent that this variant accounts for approximately 13% of all reported cases.”