Sam Boal

Donnelly: Suspected cases of Omicron variant identified, new strain 'likely' in Ireland

The health minister also said plans to subsidise antigen tests have been scrapped because prices have dropped in recent weeks.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 29th 2021, 1:27 PM

A NUMBER OF suspected cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant have been identified in Ireland, the Minister for Health has said.

Stephen Donnelly said “it is likely” that the new Covid strain is in the country.

“I think it is likely at this point that we will be identifying cases here in the coming days,” he told RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne programme.

He said that public health officials were concerned about the new variant and are focusing strongly and urgently on the matter.

Speaking to Virgin Media News later this afternoon, he added that the National Virus Reference Laboratory has identified over ten cases with ‘S-gene dropout’, which is where one of the three target genes of PCR testing is not detected, similar to the Alpha variant that was first identified in the UK.

S-gene droupout is associated with the Omicron variant, but also some other variants.

Subsidies shelved

Donnelly said that plans for the Government to subsidise the cost of antigen tests have been shelved because the price of the kits has fallen in recent weeks.

The Fianna Fáil minister said the tests are now available for between €3-4 in some supermarkets and pharmacies, so the need to “spend taxpayer money to subsidise them” no longer exists. 

“We have managed to achieve the price reduction without having to get into spending taxpayers money,” Donnelly said.

The market has done it itself.

Health spokesperson for the Social Democrats TD Róisín Shorthall said it is a decision that “makes no sense on either public health or financial grounds”.

Responding to Donnelly’s confirmation that the scheme would not be going ahead, Shorthall said that “at the start of the month, Nphet changed its advice on antigen tests and advised that anyone engaged in so-called risky activities – which can be summarised as, leaving your home to meet people indoors – should take two antigen tests per week”.

“In recognition of the increased financial burden this places on households, particularly low income households, the government opted to provide a subsidy for antigen tests, rather than offer them free of charge,” the TD said.

“Now we learn that because antigen tests are available in certain retailers for approximately €3 or €4 a test, the government is scrapping its proposed subsidy. Apparently, it believes that this is an affordable price for households to absorb,” she said.

“This again shows how out of touch this government has become. It has no comprehension of the financial struggles that ordinary people in Ireland are enduring. Antigen tests that are €3 or €4 each may be affordable for government ministers, but they are priced out of reach of many low and middle income workers and families.”

Antigen testing in schools

The new antigen testing regime in primary schools across the country begins today. 

The tests will be provided for children who are in the same pod as a confirmed case.

If a parent receives a positive PCR test for their child, they are being asked to inform the principal of the school. 

The principal will then contact the parents of the other children in their child’s pod, to give them details of how they can order free  antigen tests for their children using a freephone number.

If just one pod is involved, only the children in this pod will be offered antigen tests. If there are two pods with separate confirmed cases of Covid, then parents of children in the whole class will be contacted and provided with the information on how they can request antigen tests. 

The children in the pod of the confirmed case can continue to attend school as long as they have no symptoms.

A letter sent to staff and parents states that if a child develops symptoms they should  isolate at home and the parents should book a PCR test for them.

“Do this even if  the antigen test has a negative (not detected) result,” the letter reads. 

Speaking late last week, Education Minister Norma Foley said that the antigen testing will be rolled out as “an additional tool” for schools to help curb the spread of the virus.

She said: “The CMO has now determined there is a role for antigen testing in our schools as an additional tool in our schools. It will be operational from the 29th, which is next Monday. All guidance will be made to schools this week and to parents also.”

However, it will be up to the parents to decide whether or not they want their child to be tested. 

Additional reporting from Céimin Burke and Lauren Boland

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