The Department of Health has been notified of 3,628 new cases of Covid-19 as ministers meet to discuss whether additional measures are needed before Christmas.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) met on Thursday to finalise its recommendations for the Government, aimed at reducing socialising before and after the festive period. Among the measures was a 5pm closing time for the hospitality sector.
However, at a meeting this evening to sign-off on the additional measures, the Cabinet is understood to have rejected Nphet's closing time recommendation, instead pushing it back to 8pm.
The Irish Times reports attendances at weddings will also be capped at 100 people, while changes may be on the way for close contacts of confirmed cases who have not yet received their booster jab.
As 420 Covid patients are being treated in hospital, 105 of whom are in ICU, it is hoped the measures will dampen the impact of the new Omicron variant, which chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said now accounts for 35 per cent of new cases in the country.
— Department of Health (@roinnslainte) December 17, 2021
Taoiseach Micheál Martin is expected to address the nation on Friday evening to outline the measures for the remainder of the year.
Earlier, Government sources told The Irish Times that the mood had “darkened” around the coming weeks and that major sporting events such as the Leopardstown races and forthcoming rugby fixtures hung in the balance due to recommendations that crowds should be limited.
There are also questions surrounding upcoming gigs and concerts and whether they will be able to go ahead.
Nphet met on Thursday afternoon and finalised its recommendations to the Government, which are aimed at reducing socialising before and after the festive period.
The Taoiseach earlier flew back to Ireland from Brussels following an EU Council summit in order to attend the Cabinet sub-committee meeting alongside coalition leaders, Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan and chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan.
Speaking on Friday morning, Mr Ryan said Nphet’s recommendations – which stakeholders in the hospitality sector have called a de-facto closure – have not yet been agreed, but explained action is needed.
“None of the details are agreed yet. Nphet have set out in their letter their recommendations. There may be variations on that. The key thing is that we do have a surge coming,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.
“All the international advice is that this new variant is more transmissible and could escape some of the vaccines. We still don’t know the level of health risk it carries. There will still be a level of socialisation. We can and will meet family. It is still a social Christmas.
“People are conscious, and we are very aware, that the new variant is a risk. We will still have a social Christmas but it needs to be in a careful way,” he said.
‘Closure by another name’
The Vintners’ Federation of Ireland has said the hospitality curfew is “closure by another name”.
Chief executive Padraig Cribben told Newstalk radio: “This is an absolute bombshell that nobody had anticipated. In essence, it is the equivalent of full closure for most businesses.
“95 per cent of the business is done post-5pm in most outlets. There are many outlets around the country that don’t open until late afternoon.”
He said if the Government implements the recommendations, it will be “closure by another name”.
“If they do implement them, they have got to act like it is full closure and put the necessary supports in place,” he added.
The 5pm suggestion and the way it has been floated has caused enormous worry and stress to so many people and is an insult to our business people and workers in hospitality...
After nearly 2 years of this, the vast majority of people know how to reduce risk and stay safe...
— Brendan Griffin (@BGriffinTD) December 17, 2021
Deputy Government chief whip and Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin tweeted: “The 5pm suggestion and the way it has been floated has caused enormous worry and stress to so many people and is an insult to our business people and workers in hospitality…
“After nearly 2 years of this, the vast majority of people know how to reduce risk and stay safe…”
Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne wrote: “I am totally opposed to the #NPHET proposal for a 5pm closing time. It will simply lead to an increase in house parties.”
Schools are unlikely to close early for the Christmas holidays, however.
Omicron ‘spreading rapidly’
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on Thursday said the country was facing “an urgent situation” with Omicron “spreading rapidly” as he disclosed figures showing a sharp increase in infections caused by the new variant in just a matter of days.
Analysis of new Covid-19 cases with the identifying marker for the variant showed that Omicron now accounted for 27 per cent of all new cases, up from 1 per cent of all new cases last week, 5 per cent last weekend and 14 per cent on Tuesday.
In the North, Stormont ministers will meet next Wednesday to consider potential new restrictions in response to Omicron.
At a meeting on Thursday, Executive ministers received a stark briefing from officials on what the next number of weeks could hold if action is not taken.
A briefing paper warned “significant intervention” could be required immediately after Christmas to keep Covid-19 hospital inpatient numbers in the region below 1,000.
Across the Irish Sea, Omicron has pushed new daily Covid infections in England to their highest level so far in the pandemic. Wales will see a return to tougher restrictions after Christmas with nightclubs ordered to close from December 27th.