By Cate McCurry, PA
The Tánaiste has said the fourth wave of Covid-19 is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” – and almost half of people in hospital have not received the jab.
Leo Varadkar warned the virus is now looking for people that are not vaccinated.
He said that more than 700,000 people have now received their third dose.
The Government announced on Friday that the vaccine booster programme is to be extended to cover all those aged 16 and above.
The recommendations from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) were accepted by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and endorsed by Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan.
Mr Varadkar said there is “growing evidence” of a stabilisation in the number of Covid cases and the positivity rate.
“So essentially what’s happening is virus is looking for people that are unvaccinated,” the Fine Gael leader added.
“Cases are actually now falling among the over-75s and starting to stabilise in the wider adult population.
“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Roughly half of the people in hospital at the moment are not vaccinated.
“Unfortunately children aged between five and 11 cannot be vaccinated yet.
“So they are now more vulnerable and there will be in the past.”
In a letter to the Government, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nhpet) recommended that children’s play dates and social gatherings should be avoided for two weeks.
It also recommended extending the Covid pass to other sectors where there is a high risk of transmission.
“We have seen a very sharp increase in infections among children under 11 in the last couple of weeks, and that’s the basis towards behind the CMOs’ advice, that we want to contain that and put a lid on that,” Mr Varadkar added.
“Any restrictions that the Government decides on next Tuesday will be on foot of that advice.
“There are no plans to close retail or hospitality or any businesses at this stage.
“It’s not something that can be ruled out, but the current epidemiological situation doesn’t warrant that because there is now growing evidence that we are now seeing a stabilisation in cases and positivity rate and the numbers as well.”
He said that ministers are meeting on Friday to discuss the new variant that has been identified in South Africa.
“We don’t know very much about this variant yet.
“We don’t know yet if it’s going to be a variant of concern, but I think it is fair to say that given our experience with the Delta variant that originated in India, I think governments in the UK and Europe were slow to act on that, and I want to make sure that we are not slow to act on this occasion, so we are going to act quickly,” he added.
“We expect them to make an announcement on travel restrictions later in the day.”
Ministers are examining the idea of bringing in additional restrictions such as visas and mandatory home quarantine.
“The legislation has lapsed for mandatory hotel quarantine. So if we introduced that we’ll need to legislate next week to do so,” Mr Varadkar added.
He said that any decisions taken by Cabinet relating to children will be advisory and not statutory.
He added: “It is parents to make their own decisions in relation to how they raise their families but the advice from Nphet and Government is that we believe that when it comes to children aged between five and 11, because they’re not vaccinated, they are now at high risk of getting this virus.
“We are advising children in that age group to reduce their number of social interactions.
“School is fine. Home is fine. But I think other forms of mixing probably isn’t a good idea at this moment in time.”
He said that it is the “hope” of government to keep the hospitality sector and the event sector open across winter, including the Christmas period.
“That will all depend on what happens with cases and situation in the hospitals over the next week or two,” he added.
“But I do acknowledge the fact that unlike other sectors, for example like retail or construction, hospitality are already feeling an impact because people are cancelling events and are cancelling parties, and we understand that.
“I’ll certainly be speaking to Mr Donohoe and Minister McGrath to see if there’s anything we can do to help that sector to get through the winter period.”