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'No plans' to close hospitality or retail over the Christmas period, says Varadkar

The HSE’s Paul Reid has urged people waiting on a test to continue to isolate for at least 48 hours after symptoms end.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Nov 26th 2021, 2:00 PM

THERE ARE “NO plans” to close hospitality or retail, according to Tánaiste Leo Varadkar who says “the current epidemiological situation doesn’t warrant that” at the moment.

Speaking to reporters this morning at Penney’s HQ on Mary Street, Varadkar said “it is our intention and our hope to keep hospitality and the events sector open across the winter period, including the Christmas period”.

However, he said it is all dependent on what happens with cases and the situation in the hospitals over the next two weeks.

Varadkar said he would speak to Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe in relation to additional supports that might be needed for the hospitality sector throughout the winter period, stating that unlike other sectors, it is already feeling an impact due to people cancelling events.

Stabilisation of hospital numbers

The Tánaiste added that there is “now growing evidence” that there is a stabilisation in the positivity rate and the numbers in hospitals as well.

The infection rate in the over 75s is falling, he said, but added that there has been a sharp rise in infections of young children, aged 5-11.

His comments come after NPHET agreed advice yesterday that children should reduce their social contact for “at least the next two weeks”, stating that indoor community gatherings should be avoided for children aged 12 and younger.

This includes events such as nativity performances, and other comparable indoor seasonal events, as well as sleepovers, indoor birthday parties and playdates. NPHET advised that such events should take place outdoors and should ideally be kept to small numbers.

Children from nine years old and up and also advised to wear face masks and coverings “on a temporary basis, subject to review in mid-February 2022″. It is recommended they are worn in school as well as public transport, in retail and other indoor public settings.

Varadkar said that younger children are now “more vulnerable than they would be in the past”, adding that the government is anxious to “put a lid” on the rise in infections in the run up to Christmas.

Mild illness in children 

However, he said thankfully Covid-19 is a mild illness in almost all cases among children, but added “we just don’t want to take any chances”.

Varadkar said the Cabinet will deliberate on NPHET’s recommendations on Tuesday, stating that until then the advice hasn’t kicked in.

However, when asked about what he would recommend to families who are planning events over the weekend he said that is a matter for parents to decide upon, but said they should also understand the premise at which NPHET issued such recommendations last night.

“My expectation is that when it comes to matters related to children” that the recommendations issued “will be advisory rather than statutory”.

“I don’t see us bringing in legislation to cover a two week period, and lets hope it is just two weeks,” he said.

Travel announcement expected 

The Tánaiste also confirmed that an announcement will be made today in relation to additional travel restrictions to and from South Africa given the reports of a new variant of the virus.

While he said not much is known about the virus, the government is keen to “act quickly”. Currently there are no direct flights between Ireland and South Africa, he added.

Further restrictions that are likely to be announced include further Visa restrictions, the need for a negative PCR test as well as being fully vaccinated as well as home quarantine for a period.

The legislation for mandatory hotel quarantine has lapsed, therefore new legislation would be needed to put it back on a legal footing, he said, stating that that could only be done next week, if it was determined that new laws were needed.

Boosters

In terms of the booster programme, Varadkar said vaccinating millions of people is a huge logistical undertaking but the government believes it can ramp back up to administering between 200,000 to 250,000 jabs per week.

It will take time, he warned, stating that some people will not get their third dose until springtime.

The chief executive of the HSE has warned that resources to expand capacity for Covid-19 testing are “not infinite” as demand for tests continues to be high.

HSE CEO Paul Reid has urged people who are waiting on a test to continue to isolate while they have symptoms and for at least 48 hours afterwards.

Tests

As of yesterday, 210,300 Covid-19 tests have been administered in Ireland in the last week, including 32,335 in the most recent 24 hours.

Anyone with symptoms of Covid-19 is advised to make an appointment for a test but the high demand has left some unable to book one swiftly.

“What we have done to further scale up is extra centres, extra hours. We brought on further private capacity through the airports,” Reid said, speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland.

“Next week we will bring on three further centres through private capacity,” he said.

“We’re also scaling up our own workforce with the Defence Forces and redeployment of our own staff, pop-up clinics from the National Lab Service.

“But I do want to make the point that it’s not elastic and it’s not infinite, the resources that we can put into this, so what we are doing is prioritising those clinically referred through GPs and symptomatic close contacts.

Certainly some people who are self referring are experiencing delays and I want to acknowledge that, but what I will say to people – what is really important is that if anybody’s experiencing a delay, it’s ultimately key that you isolate when you’re symptomatic and really key that you continue to isolate for at least 48 hours after your symptoms dissipate. 

Figures released to The Journal under the Freedom of Information Act 2014 show that in 2020, operating Covid-19 testing centres cost the State €19 million.

This year, that expense has risen to nearly €28 million up to the middle of August. 

The cost of the testing process in laboratories was €246 million last year and €189 million in the first eight months of 2021.  

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Hospitals

Hospitals are bearing the burden of rising case numbers, with 571 Covid-19 patients in hospital this morning, including 126 in ICU.

The HSE is trying further scale up ICU capacity, which Reid said is being down through the use of private hospitals and stepdown beds (used for intermediate care between ICU and general wards).

“There are actions we’ve taken to mitigate the risk, but it’s still high risk in our hospitals,” he said.

“The real challenge is now that we need to sustain that now because, yes, we’re still at high risk in our hospital situation. The public’s response [to adjust behaviour] is very welcome and enouraged, but we really need to sustain this now for a period of time.”

Healthcare staff absences due to Covid-19 have reached their highest level since January, with 5,106 healthcare staff out of work last week due to being a positive case or a symptomatic close contact.

That represents a 34% increase in Covid-related absences among healthcare workers compared to two weeks earlier and is a 290% higher absence rate than the same week in 2020, according to figures confirmed by the HSE at a briefing yesterday.

Of patients in hospital with Covid-19, 49% are fully vaccinated, 46% are not, and the status of 5% is unknown.

In ICUs, 47% are fully vaccinated, 52% are not vaccinated at all, and 1% are partially vaccinated.

With reporting by Christina Finn

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Lauren Boland

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