Taoiseach Micheál Martin has ruled out the introduction of mandatory vaccination in Ireland following reports that the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) is to consider the issue.
A new paper being prepared by the Department of Health on the legal and ethical aspects of such a move is to be considered by Nphet.
Speaking today in Cork, Mr Martin said the system of voluntary vaccination would be maintained.
“First of all, I think Nphet will examine every issue - it will give advice to Government from time to time. I have been very clear in that I favour the voluntary approach to vaccination.
WIn fact, we have done extraordinarily well as a country. There is a 94 per cent vaccination rate for the first and second doses and a 63 per cent rate for the booster.
"I think that speaks volumes for informing the public of the benefits of vaccination and also the robust debate that has taken place with strong medical and public health contributions - not just from officialdom but from those within the academic world, those involved in medicine who have been very, very clear about the benefits of vaccination.
I favour the voluntary...That is the system that we will maintain.
"I favour the voluntary. I fully respect that people will explore all issues and research them, but from my perspective, we have achieved one of the highest rates (of vaccination) in the world through a voluntary system. That is the system that we will maintain."
Mr Martin said he was also confident that further restrictions could be avoided: "We want to give it another week or two. We haven't peaked yet. Covid has had many twists and turns, but I am confident that if we maintain the same focus we can get through the wave."
The Taoiseach admitted he was conscious of the impact of the 8pm closure on the hospitality sector, but while he does not foresee an immediate easing of the restriction, he said it was being kept under careful scrutiny.
Meanwhile, Mr Martin said the latest wave of infections is not expected to peak for at least another seven days or even a fortnight.
“The experts are saying to us that it could be a week to two weeks yet before the peak comes. You would’ve heard Paul Reid saying this morning that certainly with the admissions to hospitals they see no signs of the peak yet and that’s the general view from public health advice.
“And I spoke to the CMO on this recently, and again, he is of the view that it could be a week, it could be two weeks before we see the peak of this yet. So we have to be vigilant. We have to be careful in respect of that.”
Mr Martin acknowledged it was a cause of concern that over a thousand people are now in hospital with the virus: “If you are hospitalised with Covid, it is an illustration of the degree to which Covid can make you sick.
"We wanted to keep people out of hospital, we certainly also want to keep people out of ICU departments, and that has been the rationale for all of our public health policies.
"In our view case numbers are very very high and we believe that we can manage those case numbers within the existing infrastructure within our hospital and community healthcare system."
The Taoiseach also repeated his calls to unvaccinated cohorts of the population to attend for jabs: “Again I would say to you that is vital that people get vaccinated.
"There are still people out there who could get vaccinated, and you haven’t got the booster yet. It is very very important that they get the booster - that’s the key measure that people can take to prevent themselves from being hospitalised or being admitted to ICU.”
He stressed the "game-changing" nature of the vaccination programme: “In the context of Covid-19, it is very clear that if you compare this month this year with this month last year - there is no way we would (be this open with our economy).
"We were in Level Five last year - so vaccination is the big game-changer here."
He added that he fully respected and understood the pressures that many different sectors of the economy are under, but emphasised that we need to “keep the pressure on the virus".
“We have to ensure that it does not spread too widely, too quickly," he said.
Speaking earlier, David Kenny, associate professor of law at Trinity College in Dublin, said the State would have to show a “very compelling and highly evidenced” common good rationale to remove people’s decision-making rights.
Prof Kenny said the high numbers of vaccinated people in the country could pose another hurdle should the State wish to introduce such a measure, explaining the State would have to compare the current level of vaccination numbers with how mandatory jabs would help keep people out of intensive care.
“They would have to show that, whatever extra percentage they think they would capture with a mandate, would be such that it would make a really marked difference to our public health outcomes in order to overcome the sort of consent and autonomy question,” he added.