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Boosted close contacts won't have to restrict movements from Friday as govt aims to strike 'balance'

Close contacts who have no symptoms and are boosted will not be required to restrict movements.

Image: Sam Boal

Updated Jan 12th 2022, 1:28 PM

CLOSE CONTACTS WHO have received a booster jab and have no symptoms will be advised that they do not have to restrict their movements, the government has announced. 

Speaking after a Cabinet meeting, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the measure will take effect from midnight tomorrow, meaning it is effective from Friday. 

Government has also agreed to accept public health advice received yesterday that people who test positive on an antigen test won’t need a confirmatory PCR test. It is instead planned that they will be able to log their test result online.

All close contacts are nonetheless advised to take an antigen test before entering crowded, enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces and are also asked to wear an appropriate face mask in those spaces. 

All close contacts are also asked to “limit contact” with people outside their household and to “avoid contact” with anyone who may be at higher risk from Covid-19.

Cabinet has also agreed isolation periods for those with symptoms and are testing positive will be brought to seven days across the board.

Speaking to reporters at Government Buildings today, the Taoiseach said the changes are made possible by the strong vaccination programme.

“I think it reflects progress that we are making in terms of our fight against Omicron and Covid-19 are generally,” he said, encouraging people to get vaccinated and boosted. 

The booster campaign has worked and is working in terms of reducing the level of severe illness as caused by Omicron to date. 

At the moment, thousands of workers are estimated to be out sick with Covid-19 across the economy or out because they are restricting their movements, having been named a close contact of a confirmed case.

But on foot of advice from the Chief Medical Officer, this advice will no longer apply from Friday and people who have received a booster will not have to self-islote if they do not have symptoms. 

Close contacts who have not received a booster vaccine will have to restrict their movements for seven days.

Business representative groups including Ibec have called for the rules around close contacts to be reviewed in recent weeks in response to staffing issues.

Martin said told reporters that today’s decision “represents a balance in terms of the pressures on supply chains in particular and on essential services”. 

Ibec’s CEO Danny McCoy said today that the changing advice would “support businesses across the country to more effectively manage staffing challenges posed by Covid”. 

“Today’s announcement from government will enable many struggling businesses to take their first steps towards addressing crippling staffing challenges induced by Covid and in turn, better ensure that recent disruptions to manufacturing and retailing activities providing essential supply of goods and services across society are not repeated,” he said. 

Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary Patricia King said that “unions are acutely aware of the surging case numbers and the knock-on effect for workers” but that the change also a risky one. 

“The amendments to isolation periods recommended by the Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tony Holohan to Government are not without risk as already outlined by the ECDC in their very recent report. Therefore we must continue to be cautious,” King said. 

The Enhanced Illness Benefit should continue to be available to workers who need it,” she added.

It is expected that the Stakeholder Forum of the Safety Protocol will convene in the coming days to further discuss the implications of these changes in workplaces.

ECDC

This week, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) released advice on a “pragmatic approach” to self-isolation rules for close contacts, saying this should be considered in the case of the healthcare sector and “essential services”. 

Speaking on Newstalk this morning, DCU immunology professor Dr Christine Loscher expressed concern about a “blanket” easing of close contact requirements beyond workers on those sectors. 

Asked about this today, Martin said that Ireland’s high vaccination rate was also a factor in the decision: 

It’s about balance between the pressures, as the ECDC did identify, on supply chains and healthcare systems on education systems and so forth, that that balance needs to be required. But you also have to factor in Ireland’s high level of vaccination compared to other countries and particularly in terms of our high level of booster vaccines, which is much higher than many, many other countries. So I think that does give some comfort to the public health team in respect of this decision. 

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has also questioned the new advice and has called on the government to outline how loosening the measures may impact the health system. 

“The decision to reduce isolation time for Covid-positive cases and close contacts needs to be examined. Weakening the public health advice now has the potential to lead to more people contracting the virus,” INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha said this afternoon. 

We know that many asymptomatic close contacts have been a feature of the Omicron variant. By allowing potentially infected people to continue to work, this is going to have a knock-on impact on case transmission.

Ní Sheaghdha added: “The INMO is now calling for detailed modelling on the impact this latest advice will have on our health service. Nurses and midwives need to be briefed on what exactly is required of them.”

The INMO has also raised questions over the availability and cost of high-grade masks and antigen tests for the general public. 

Testing

Speaking earlier, An Taoiseach defended the country’s testing regime, saying that weekly PCR testing for the population has increased from 100,000 a week this time last year to a current level of 300,000 per week. 

Martin also said that the HSE has sent out 6.4 million free antigen tests to people and and continues to do so at a rate of “50,000 packs per week”.

In terms of mortality rates, hospitalisation and ICU numbers he sai: “We are managing this wave effectively”.

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The Taoiseach also said that health officials have not put a definitive date on when the Omicron wave would peak. 

“We can’t be definite in terms of peak, we go by public health expertise and those who monitor this and so on. But I think there are hopeful signs, we are making progress in respect of Omicron,” he said.  

In a statement today Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said the changes will “help to alleviate the extreme pressure” on essential services. 

“These changes will reduce the requirement for restricted movements for close contacts while enhancing other protective measures particularly mask wearing and reiterating the importance for all of us to continue to follow the public health measures,” he said,. 

 

Speaking to reporters at Government Buildings today about the easing of restrictions, Martin said a decision on hospitality would not be made for the next few weeks following advice from NPHET but that he was “hopeful”. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said yesterday that he expects the easing of restrictions will be done on a phased basis.

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy

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