New restrictions to tackle Omicron ‘not being envisaged at the moment’

Another five cases of the Omicron variant were confirmed in Ireland on Thursday.
New restrictions to tackle Omicron ‘not being envisaged at the moment’

By Dominic McGrath and Cate McCurry, PA

The Taoiseach said new restrictions in the near future could not be ruled out, but insisted that vaccinations offered significant protection against the new Covid variant.

Speaking on Thursday evening after another five cases of the Omicron variant were confirmed in Ireland, Micheál Martin said that the country was in a very different position to last Christmas due to the high level of vaccine uptake.

“As of now, we’re not contemplating any additional restrictions,” Mr Martin said.

However, he warned that the pandemic has repeatedly surprised health officials and politicians.

He added: “I can never rule out anything in respect of the pandemic because it has had the capacity to throw up new developments.”

Mr Martin said that he did not envisage any new restrictions, but warned: “We have a new variant on the scene, so we have to be cautious.

“Obviously, we will follow the scientific advice in respect of what is happening with Omicron.”

Six cases of the new Omicron variant have now been confirmed in Ireland.

On Thursday, health officials also said they were braced for more cases of the virus in Ireland.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said: “A number of other probable cases are under investigation. Although this is a new variant, our early understanding gives us confidence that a booster dose of Covid-19 vaccine will offer good protection against Omicron and Delta infection.”

“Our current wave of disease continues to be driven by the Delta variant of Covid-19. We know that the public health measures we are so familiar with will break the chains of transmission of Delta, and we are confident they will work on Omicron,” he said.

Mr Martin, speaking on the Tonight Show on Virgin Media, said that the timeline for providing vaccinations to children – following approval from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) – was currently being worked out.

He indicated that a full plan and a timeline from the HSE could be ready within a week.

“This creates a new logistical challenge for the HSE in terms of how this gets organised. I do think we should give them the time to come up with a comprehensive plan, announce it in a comprehensive way,” he said.

Mr Martin was also asked whether schools were still safe, amid high rates of the virus among young children.

“The Government asserted that on foot of public health advice,” he said.

“We were told consistently that schools are safe places for children.”

“Also we were told that the bulk of transmission was in the community.”

“We have to work in accordance with public health, especially in relation to children and schools. It’s not something that I make up or invent in terms of how best to organise schools in the middle of the pandemic.”

Earlier, HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry told reporters at a briefing that a number of suspect cases are being investigated, but said health officials are under no illusions that more cases will soon be confirmed.

HSE chief Paul Reid said that he expects the number of Omicron cases to rise significantly, with the expectation that it will become the dominant strain of the virus in Ireland.

“No reassurance can be taken now at the low levels that we’ve identified here,” he warned.

“We’ve seen what’s happening in the UK. We expect it’s only a matter of time before we are looking at significant numbers of cases phases of Omicron.”

Health officials also promised that genome sequencing capacity was now being expanded in Ireland in order to better identify the new variant.

A further 4,022 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Ireland on Thursday.

On Thursday morning there were 530 people in hospitals with the virus, with 115 patients in intensive care units.

It was confirmed that the Government had abandoned plans to cut the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) in a bid to help businesses affected by new Covid-19 restrictions.

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said other plans to modify the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS) will not go ahead as it will be too “costly” to put in place before Christmas.

The Government is to extend the enhanced rates of the EWSS for a further two months, and it will be backdated to the start of December.

The existing CRSS will also be extended to the end of January as nightclubs remain closed over the Christmas period.

Mr Donohoe said: “We and the Government absolutely accept that the impact on public health guidance on the hospitality sector in particular has been significant.

“We’re also aware, as we approach into the Christmas period, of the un-heightened uncertainty that is there with regard to how businesses will be able to work and how they will be able to employ and who they will be able to employ.”

He said further consideration and analysis of the CRSS modification shows it would be “administratively very complex and potentially costly” to have it in place and operational ahead of Christmas.

“I recognise in particular that for the hospitality sector, speed is vital in trying to meet their needs as we work our way through a trading period that is so important to so many restaurants and hotels,” Mr Donohoe added.

“They need additional support and they need it now and a potential risk developed of our being able to modify the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme, but not being able to deal with in time and not being able to have the impact that we wanted to have.

“Therefore I have decided, and will be recommending to Government, that we maintain the enhanced EWSS subsidies for a further two months period across December and January.

“This is a quicker way of responding to the need of how we support businesses in the medium term.

“This scheme and its operation has been the cornerstone of how the Government has helped our employers respond back to the current crisis.

“It has played a central role in supporting businesses, encouraging employment, and helping to maintain the link between employers and employees.

“To date, the overall cost of the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme alone is €6.5 billion.

“I propose to extend the CRSS scheme up to the 31st of January, to allow any businesses which are prohibited from opening to continue to avail of the scheme.

Coronavirus – Thu Dec 9, 2021
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, left, and Michael McGrath, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (Julien Behal Photography/PA)

Mr Donohoe is to introduce the amendments in the Finance Bill in the Seanad next week.

The Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) welcomed the decision, saying the extension will keep people in their jobs over the festive season.

Chief executive Padraig Cribben said: “The restoration of the EWSS to its full rate backdated to December 1st is welcome news as the trade approaches Christmas.

“It will mean keeping staff in their jobs through the festive season and into the new year, which is hugely important.

“However, Government will need to engage with the sector on an ongoing basis as it remains unclear if restrictions will be extended. If that’s the case, further supports will be required.”

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