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UK's surging Covid rates provided 'sobering' lesson as Cabinet agreed 'new phase'

The government was quick to caution people that 22 October should not be seen as Ireland’s ‘Freedom Day’.

In Scotland cases have doubled every week since restrictions eased.
In Scotland cases have doubled every week since restrictions eased.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

AS CABINET AGREED this week to a ‘new phase’ in Ireland’s pandemic experience, ministers were closely watching the rising cases in countries that have moved more quickly to ease Covid restrictions.

The government yesterday announced four key dates for the lifting of restrictions, with a plan to lift almost all measures on 22 October. 

This will mean the return of large live indoor events and a phased move back into offices – not to mention the return of music and dancing at weddings.

While the tone from government was a hopeful one, the announcement also came with a warning that 22 October should not be seen as Ireland’s ‘Freedom Day’ and that people should expect to continue living with Covid for some time. 

Through the month of September and most of October participation in many indoor activities or attendance at indoor live events will be restricted only to those with immunity through vaccination or recent recovery from Covid.

Speaking to Newstalk’s The Hard Shoulder after the announcement last night Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly explained why the government decided to take this phased approach. 

“What I’m particularly concerned about is the profile of disease in Northern Ireland and Wales and Scotland,” he said.

“So what they did over the last number of months was they more or less opened fully for vaccinated and unvaccinated [people] and what we’re seeing right now is a very, very sobering rise in cases.

Scotland for example, are more than two and a half times our case rate. Northern Ireland is about twice our case rate. Their hospitalisation figures are higher and causing problems, so therefore it’s about a phased reopening.

Coronavirus levels have been rising across the UK since restrictions were eased. 

The latest snapshot survey of infections by the Office for National Statistics shows around one in 70 people in England had Covid-19 in that week up to 20 August, up from one in 80 the previous week.

In Wales, the figure was around one in 120 people – the highest level there since the week to February 12 – while in Scotland it was around one in 140, which was a rise from one in 200 in the previous week.

One in 40 people in Northern Ireland had Covid-19 in the week to 20 August.

Yesterday health officials in Northern Ireland reported 1,313 positive cases and six deaths of patients with Covid in the previous 24 hours. In the Republic, the Department of Health reported 1,382 new Covid cases. 

There is concern in Northern Ireland about the number of younger people being admitted to hospital with Covid-19. 

Assistant Medical Director for South West Acute and Omagh Hospitals, Professor Ronan O’Hare told the Belfast Telegraph this week that there has been a noticeable change in the age of patients at his hospital in Fermanagh.

He said there had also been several admissions to intensive care of women who are pregnant or who have had their babies. 

“There is a concerning number of pregnant women requiring support not just in our hospital but throughout Northern Ireland,” he said.

“There has been a noticeable change in the age profile of patients admitted to hospital, with increases in the 16 to 46 age group and some displaying underlining health conditions.”

Some Covid restrictions remain in place in Northern Ireland, with no more than 10 people from three households allowed to meet indoors at a private home and hospitality businesses required to operate table service only for drinks and to record customer details for contact tracing.

A number of hospitals in the North have reported pressure on Emergency Departments, with some trusts warning of long waiting times and asking people to consider other options if their condition was not urgent.

In Scotland, cases have doubled every week since restrictions eased. At the weekend case numbers hit a record high.

Yesterday health officials in Scotland reported 6,029 new cases of Covid and seven new deaths. There were 54 people in intensive care with the disease and 585 in hospital with recently confirmed Covid. 

In the week ending 22 August, 41 deaths were registered where Covid-19 was on the death certificate.

Source: Scottish Government

Fewer than 1,500 cases were recorded in Scotland on 9 August, the day most Covid restrictions were lifted. This meant physical distancing rules and the limits on gatherings were removed, and all venues were allowed to reopen.

On Sunday, 19 days after the restrictions were lifted, there were 7,113 positive cases recorded. According to the latest WHO figures, Lanarkshire and Glasgow’s health board areas had Europe’s highest case rates.

Public health officials in Scotland are worried that case numbers are still rising so quickly, despite the fact that over 82% of over 18s in the country are fully vaccinated and more than 91% are partially vaccinated.

They have warned that some easing may have to be reversed to slow the spread of infection and take the pressure off health services. 

The return of schools in Scotland earlier in the month was believed to have contributed to an increase in infections and as pupils across the rest of the UK return to classrooms  a further rise in case numbers is expected. 

Members of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational sub-group (SPI-M-O) advised the government to plan for the likelihood of high prevalence of the virus in schools by the end of September.


Ireland’s ‘new phase’

From today, Ireland will begin what the Taoiseach described as a “new phase” in the pandemic.

Public transport will return to full capacity today, though it will still be mandatory to wear a face covering. 

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The next key date will be 6 September, when organised indoor events will be permitted to take place with capacity limits of 60% and only for those with Covid immunity. From this date outdoor events will be able to take place at 75% capacity where all patrons have immunity.

The capacity limit will be 50% for outdoor events at which patrons have mixed immunity.

Group activities such as sports and dance classes will return from 20 September with capacity limits of 100 people where everyone in attendance has immunity. From this date a return to workplaces will also commence on a phased and staggered attendance basis.

The final date in this latest roadmap, 22 October, will see all remaining restrictions lifted for hospitality, events, gatherings at private homes and high risk activities such as nightclubs. 

However the requirement to wear masks in certain settings such as public transport, indoor retail and hospitals will remain in place. The Taoiseach last night said he could see masks becoming part of Irish winters in the future to combat flu and other viruses. 

And he said the lifting of restrictions over the next two months does not mean the pandemic is over or that measures will not have to be reintroduced. 

In his address he said the government will be quick to respond if a “dangerous variant emerges” or if hospitals come under unsustainable pressure again. 

“We are very unlikely to ever be able to be rid of the virus completely,” he said.

- With reporting from Press Association.

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