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No rule change for close contacts as Taoiseach warns of 'accelerating exponential growth'

Close contacts who have received a booster are required to self-isolate for five days.

Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin.
Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin.
Image: Leah Farrell

Updated Jan 5th 2022, 3:24 PM

THE TAOISEACH HAS said there will be no change this week to rules for vaccinated close contacts but that the matter is to be discussed by NPHET when it meets tomorrow. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said yesterday he would favour people who have received a booster being exempted from the self-isolation rules, while Transport Minister Eamon Ryan also saying today that it “makes sense” to have different self-isolation rules depending on someone’s vaccination status. 

The requirement of people to restrict movements is believed to be putting increasing pressure on different parts of the economy due to people being unavailable for work.

At present, close contacts who have received a booster are required to restrict movements for five days and undertake three antigen tests over several days.  

Speaking after a Cabinet meeting today, Taoiseach Michéal Martin warned that making a change “too quickly” risked “accelerating even further the exponential growth of the virus”. 

He said that certain sectors can apply for a derogation allowing them to be exempted from self-isolation rules. For example, healthcare workers are not required to self-isolate as a close contact if they test negative for Covid-19. 

Education Minister Norma Foley said today she said she would not be seeking a similar derogation for teachers. 

Martin said the five-day isolation advice was in line with other countries. 

“First and foremost it’s public health advice and we’re not out of step internationally on this,” he said. 

And also out of that the government created the senior officials group prior to Christmas, empowering secretary generals (of departments) to work with different sectors of the economy to give derogations if derogations were requested and deemed necessary.

“We are always aware of challenges in certain parts of the economy. The button hasn’t been pressed in some areas in terms of derogations. That’s a matter that will be kept under constant review, this process of derogations.

“The public health advice will be kept under review by NPHET and the Chief Medical Officer they are aware, they’re very conscious of the impact of all of this on society but the key call here of course is not to do something too quickly that could accelerate even further the exponential growth of the virus.”

Martin said that the country was dealing with “a very rapid-spreading, highly transmissible variant” that needed to be managed. 

Yesterday, an additional 21,302 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed. As of yesterday, 884 people were in hospital with the virus, up 80, with 90 in ICU, down 3. 

Hospital data shows that the bulk of Ireland’s sickest Covid-19 patients have the Delta variant and not the highly contagious Omicron strain.

The Taoiseach said that hospitals are “under pressure” with staff absences which is causing concerns. 

He added that the severity of the Omicron variant must be monitored over the course of the next 10 days, with “the bulk of ICU” cases still made up of people who had been infected with the Delta variant. 

Martin said that that clinicians within the HSE have said that Omicron “is different” but that “it’s too early to be definitive about the connection between Omicron and admissions to ICU”. 

He added: “There will be challenging number of weeks in January, the next week or 10 days will give us more evidence in terms of the impact of this variant on severity of illness and that will inform decisions, public health advice will be given giving in respect to a broad range of issues, not least the issue of close contacts.”

Antiviral drugs

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly also confirmed today that Ireland is pursuing the purchase of Covid-19 antiviral and monoclonal antibody treatments. 

Ireland will seek to purchase treatments manufactured by Pfizer, Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) and Merck (MSD). 

The EU Commission is currently progressing a Joint Procurement Agreement (JPA) in relation to antivirals, which includes MSD’s Lagevrio (Molnupiravir) and Pfizer’s Paxlovid (Ritonavir), and Ireland has formally indicated its intention to participate in this arrangement.

Ireland is already a participant in an EU JPA for the purchase of the GSK monoclonal antibody product Xevudy (Sotrovimab).

The HSE, in consultation with the Department of Health, is also exploring opportunities to procure antivirals through bilateral agreements at national level, in advance of the completion of the relevant EU JPA.

Foreign travel

The Taoiseach today also confirmed that testing requirements for vaccinated people entering Ireland from abroad are to be lifted, as the measures were introduced before Christmas to stem the spread of the Omicron variant, which now makes up 96% of cases.

The Taoiseach said the change will be made “in the next couple of days”, meaning anyone flying inbound in the next few days will likely still need a negative test to enter Ireland.

Martin also confirmed that his government had granted approval to buy antiviral Covid pills, and argued that the current restrictions in place are “effective”. 

An Taoiseach was speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting where ministers discussed the “rampant” spread of Covid-19 but no further restrictions have yet been recommended by public health officials. NPHET are due to meet tomorrow.

The Taoiseach also defended the government’s decision to open schools as planned tomorrow, saying that they were putting the child’s needs first.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said yesterday there was no rationale to delay tomorrow’s return of schools but unions have continued to express concern about the availability of teachers due to Covid-related absences. 

Speaking to reporters today, Martin said that “children do best when at school” and that this was the motivation behind the decision to proceed with the reopening of education. 

He added: “It’s been a long pandemic, we had Delta in autumn and now Omicron. And I think people responded very well indeed and I think that will be reflected. NPHET will meet on Thursday and we we’ll be steady as she goes now in relation to dealing with this.”

Also speaking outside Government Buildings, Transport minister and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said he does not see any additional Covid-19 restrictions being put in place in the short term. 

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Ryan, Martin and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar met yesterday ahead of today’s Cabinet meeting. 

“The numbers are huge, the cases, but the critical numbers are the numbers in critical care and they have held relatively steady,” Ryan said today. 

With Omicron, we don’t know the exact medical facts yet, but it looks like it’s less virulent and people are not getting as sick. The numbers being so large there’ll still be a lot of hospitals beds taken up but I don’t expect further restrictions this week. And hopefully, if the modelling was correct, we should be close to the peak and numbers will start to come down we will be able to cope. 

4960 Michael McGrath Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath also said further restrictions are not expected following today’s Cabinet meeting. 

“As of today the government does not have any indication that NPHET intend to bring forward additional restrictions on the economy or on society,” he said.

We recognise that Omicron is rampant at the moment. We’re all seeing the huge case numbers that have been reported every day. Thankfully, all of the indications are that the impact on the individual level is not as severe as Delta. But there is no room for complacency and we are watching and monitoring the situation in the hospitals very closely.  

McGrath said that “nobody knows for sure” when the peak of the Omicron wave would come and the government must remain “cautious and careful”.

Updated by Gráinne Ní Aodha and Hayley Halpin

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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