Covid situation 'concerning and delicately balanced' says CMO as additional restrictions confirmed

A 8pm closing time for the hospitality sector will take effect from midnight on Sunday.
Covid situation 'concerning and delicately balanced' says CMO as additional restrictions confirmed

Muireann Duffy

The chief medical officer has described Ireland's epidemiological situation as "concerning and delicately balanced" despite "a recent reduction in the number of confirmed cases in hospital and ICU".

In a letter to the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, Dr Tony Holohan said international data from South Africa, Denmark and the UK suggests the Omicron variant could lead to a rapid increase in case numbers as it takes hold in the State.

On Friday, as Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced increased restrictions for the coming weeks the CMO confirmed 35 per cent of new infections are being attributed to the new variant.

"While we know that Omicron spreads rapidly, and that this is probably due both to its ability to evade the immunity conferred by vaccination and prior infection and being intrinsically more transmissible, we do not know the relative contribution of these two mechanisms," Dr Holohan wrote.

Projections from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) suggest that as Omicron becomes dominant in Ireland, "which is likely to happen over the coming week", a surge in case numbers is likely, particularly when increased socialisation over the Christmas period is taken into account.

The CMO explains the peak of these infections could lead to between 2-5 per cent of the country's population becoming infected with the virus, while between 6-25 per cent of the population could be close contacts.

In the letter penned following Nphet's meeting on Thursday, Dr Holohan explains optimistic modelling shows daily cases number reaching 8,000-10,000, while a pessimistic scenario increases case numbers to over 20,000 per day. This could see over 2,000 people with the virus requiring hospital care at the wave's peak, the group believe.

Noting the potential danger posed by Omicron, Dr Holohan emphasised the importance of continued adherence to existing public health measures, but also conveyed Nphet's decision to recommend a number of additional measures to "slow down the spread of the Omicron variant while the booster programme advances, and its full impact can take effect".

These recommendations were conveyed to the Government and discussed by the Cabinet and Cabinet sub-committee on Friday before being signed-off by ministers prior to the Taoiseach's announcement on Friday evening.

The letter confirms Nphet recommended a 5pm closing time for the hospitality industry, however, the Government rejected this, going instead with the later time of 8pm.

The other recommendations made in the letter, including changes to the rules for close contacts and a limit on the number of people permitted at events, were agreed by ministers and will take effect at midnight on Sunday, lasting until January 30th.

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