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'We can get through Omicron and overcome it' - Taoiseach

All restaurants, bars, cinemas and theatres must close at 8pm until 30 January.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Dublin Castle ahead of last Tuesday's cabinet meeting
Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Dublin Castle ahead of last Tuesday's cabinet meeting
Image: Sasko Lazarov

Updated Dec 21st 2021, 5:20 PM

THE 8PM CLOSING time imposed on bars, restaurants and other venues gives people an opportunity to socialise over Christmas “without overdoing it”, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said.

Through vaccines, reduced socialisation and “sensible choices”, Ireland can “get through Omicron and overcome it”, he said.

From yesterday, a number of new restrictions came into effect amid growing fears about the Omicron variant.

Until 30 January all restaurants, bars, cinemas and theatres must close at 8pm, there is a 50% capacity limit at live events and sports, and tighter movement restrictions for close contacts of Covid cases.

Speaking to reporters this afternoon, Martin was asked if restrictions would be stood down earlier than planned if cases do not rise as high as feared.

“First off, I don’t want to get into prospective scenarios. We have said from the outset we’ll keep this under constant review throughout the month,” the Taoiseach said.

“The key criterion is the general health of the population, protecting public health, [and] protecting lives of people,” he said.

We still need, really, more comprehensive data on the severity of Omicron, and the degree to which the high number of cases will translate into his numbers of admissions into hospitals, into ICUs, and into mortality rates.

He said that is the “key consideration” and the government will be working with the United Kingdom and other countries to ”really get a handle on that data” as soon as possible.

“Suffice to say that this year, because of the fact that we have that significant booster vaccine, the fact we have such a high number of the population with primary doses of the vaccine, now large numbers going for the booster, that does give us significant protection, Martin said.

“So we’re hopeful that a combination of the vaccines, with the level of the restrictions that reduces the overall level of socialisation, and people themselves making sensible choices, that we can get through Omicron and overcome it.”

Early close

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) had recommended that all indoor venues close at 5pm but the Government instead chose 8pm.

On Newstalk Breakfast this morning, the Taoiseach said there’s “no exact science around timing” but ministers wanted to achieve a balance. “The 8pm rule gives people the opportunity to get out and have drinks without overdoing it,” he added.

Martin continued: “We know what happened (last Christmas) … We got through it in the end, but with a heavy price. What we don’t know about Omicron is the level of severity … We’d like to see some more data.

“We cannot take the risk with the population, in terms of just letting it rip and hope for the best. That would not be the right thing to do.”

Martin said there are currently no plans to close schools after the Christmas break, adding: “The advice we’re receiving right now is that there’s not a problem or evidence that we should [close schools].”

The Taoiseach also said the Government has no plans to introduce mandatory vaccination, as countries such as Austria and Germany plan to do.

“In my view, I think we have to keep pushing the voluntary approach. I do get the point that the unvaccinated take up a disproportionate element of the health service … [but] I think we should keep going with the approach we have adopted so far,” he stated.

As the booster programme rollout continues apace, HSE CEO Paul Reid this morning confirmed that yesterday saw the highest number of Covid-19 vaccines administered in one day since the start of the pandemic – over 76,000 doses.

Support for businesses

The Cabinet met this morning to sign off on financial support for businesses affected by the latest round of Covid-19 restrictions.

Ministers discussed changes to the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS) among other issues. Today’s meeting is scheduled to be the final one of the year.

There are rumours that further restrictions could be introduced in the coming weeks but NPHET and a number of ministers have labelled this as “speculation” for now.

The Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) today confirmed it has written to the Taoiseach and called on the Government to implement “a strategic approach” to the management of Covid-19.

Neil McDonnell, CEO of ISME, said: “Many businesses across the retail and hospitality sectors earn a disproportionate amount of their annual revenues in December. And many of these businesses are in those sectors worst affected by the pandemic.

“Given the likelihood that Omicron will not be the last variant of Covid-19 that we will face, we urgently need a coherent Government strategy to enable us to live with this virus (or any future viral pandemic), which includes prearranged public health measures and restrictions once certain infection criteria are reached.

“We cannot afford a continuation of short-notice, ad hoc measures of the type announced last week in response to disease case numbers. The reimposition of restrictions on the hospitality sector will have long-term implications for its ability to attract and retain skilled labour, raise capital or acquire property.”

‘An exceptional sacrifice’

A further 4,799 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed by public health officials yesterday evening. As of 8am yesterday, 467 people were in hospital with the virus, including 104 in intensive care.

The Omicron variant is now estimated to make up 52% of Ireland’s confirmed cases.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan yesterday said that the “level of disease and positivity rate amongst young adults has increased sharply in the last week”.

“One in four people in the 16 to 34-year-old age group that are going for a PCR test have received a ‘detected’ result. This is one of the highest rates since the beginning of the pandemic,” he said.

“This high level of disease in young people represents a high risk to those they come into contact with who have yet to be vaccinated or receive their booster. Therefore, if you have not yet received your booster you are best to avoid unnecessary contact with people outside your household.”

Dr Gerald Barry, assistant professor of virology at University College Dublin (UCD), has said that the Government should allow those who have had Covid in the past six months to get a booster vaccine.

The current NIAC advice is that people who have tested positive for the virus since they were vaccinated should wait for their booster until at least six months after the infection was diagnosed.

Speaking on RTÉ’s News at One this afternoon, Barry said this needs to be shortened.

“I think it needs to be shortened to as short a period as possible because that protection from previous infection just isn’t the same as it was against other variants, so we need to look at shortening that,” he said. 

He cited new data from Imperial College London, which found that while infection by the previous strains of Covid gave around 85% protection against reinfection, that has now dropped to around 19%, making risk of reinfection with the Omicron variant over five times greater than that of the Delta variant.

He suggested Ireland shorten the timeline between vaccinations to 28 days, as has been done in the UK. 

He also called for a change in advice to those who had a positive Covid-19 test in the past nine months and who have no symptoms, which says they do not have to restrict movements or take antigen tests if they are a close contact.

“That really doesn’t fit with the science of what we know about the potential for reinfection with this Omicron variant and the possibility that you can be infected, even if you had Covid in the past six to nine months,” he said.

“All these little things need to be updated because I think we all need to be aware of our own personal risk profile at the moment, and we don’t want to give people a false sense of security, thinking that if they had Covid recently that they can’t be infected again, we know that the risk is much higher now, unfortunately, with the Omicron variant.”

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Meanwhile, the most recent data from Ámarach research indicates that only half of people with Covid-19 symptoms are isolating themselves from others.

“This is the single most important piece of basic public health advice – it is vital that you isolate as soon as you experience any symptoms of Covid-19 and arrange a PCR test,” Holohan said.

0351 Academy Midnight Mass is exempt from the 8pm time limit, unlike music venues such as The Academy in Dublin city centre Source: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

“Do not meet up with others and put them at risk of Covid-19 or another respiratory infection. Do not rely on a negative antigen test as a basis for not isolating.

“As difficult as it may seem, limiting as much as possible your Christmas to small numbers and very close family will protect them.

“This is an exceptional sacrifice to ask after the very difficult year all of us have had, so please remember that it may be the decision that protects yourself or a loved one from the severe impacts of Covid-19,” he stated.

Common Agricultural Policy

Also at today’s Cabinet meeting, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue gave an update on Ireland’s multi-billion euro Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The plan, which must be submitted for ratification to the European Commission before the end of the year, will see €9.8 billion in funding made available to 130,000 farm families. The Irish exchequer is putting forward €2.3 billion, the most by any previous government in a CAP plan.

Failure to have the plan agreed and sent to Brussels for ratification could put farmer payments at risk in 2023.

The next CAP, which will commence in 2023, is the most ambitious from an environmental point of view with 25% of direct payments ring fenced for environmental measures for the first time.

Separately, using carbon tax receipts, €1.5 billion will be made available to the period 2030, for an agri-environmental scheme which will pay farmers up to €10,000.

With reporting by Christina Finn

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Órla Ryan

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