Sarah Mooney, Vivienne Clarke
A further 20,110 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed on the last day of 2021, as the country's chief medical officer expressed "cautious optimism" for the new year.
Both Dr Tony Holohan and the Minister for Health warned against New Year's Eve gatherings on Friday, as Ireland experiences an unprecedented surge in cases fuelled by the Omicron variant.
A record 20,554 cases were reported on Thursday, with Dr Holohan saying capacity issues in the testing system means the true number may be more than 30,000.
There are currently 682 patients hospitalised with the virus, an increase of 63 since Thursday, with 86 people in intensive care.
“Once again, we are reporting another very high number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland. The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 is continuing to increase," Dr Holohan said this afternoon.
“I know many people have cancelled or postponed planned social and family events, not just for New Year's Eve, but right throughout the Christmas period. The occasions in life we most look forward to have been changed utterly by this pandemic. However, these collective efforts are necessary to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our health service."
Dr Holohan said January "will likely be a difficult time" and thanked frontline healthcare workers for their efforts. He also paid tribute to those who died after contracting the virus.
'Cautious optimism' for 2022
However, he added that 2022 "may be a better year from a Covid point of view than either 2020 or 2021.”
“2020 was a very challenging year from a Covid point of view. We were dealing with a new disease, with no drugs, no vaccines and no background immunity," Dr Holohan said.
"In 2021, we saw the emergence of vaccines and the extraordinary response of the scientific community internationally to produce them.
"As we look to 2022, there are many reasons for cautious optimism. Advances in science and public health, including the development of new treatments like antivirals and monoclonal antibodies, and the continued evolution of our understanding of this virus give us grounds to hope that 2022 may be a better year from a Covid point of view than either 2020 or 2021.”
Earlier, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said Dr Holohan was correct about the significant risk posed by people gathering for New Year's Eve celebrations, and agreed that it was not safe for people to visit other households.
Schools and testing
However, the Minister also reiterated that schools will reopen next week as they are controlled environments.
The public health advice was that people should reduce the number of household visitors, Mr Donnelly told RTÉ radio’s News at One.
While the official Government advice remained that “a maximum” of three other households should visit, the number of visitors should be kept to a minimum due to fast-increasing infection numbers, he said.
While the Cabinet has not met since before Christmas, they were in communication on a daily basis, he said. It is important for the public to be guided by the public health advice which was to reduce mixing “to the greatest extent possible.”
Several experts in infectious diseases warned on Thursday that the true scale of infection in Ireland is unknown amid pressures on the testing system.
Mr Donnelly acknowledged that the PCR testing capacity was “maxed out” and said that there had been a change in policy because of the high levels of positivity and PCR tests had to be given to those “who need it the most”.
People who had a positive antigen test could now register it on the HSE website and upload their close contacts, he said. In the meantime they should stay home, isolate and continue to take antigen tests while they awaited a PCR test.