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'No decision' yet on lifting Covid measures as Taoiseach cites 'wrong turn' in virus trajectory

A meeting of senior officials this afternoon heard that Ireland’s Covid-19 situation has taken an unexpected turn.

Image: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

Updated Oct 13th 2021, 6:35 PM

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said that he “can’t guarantee” that the remaining Covid-19 restrictions will be lifted next week following a “wrong turn” in the trajectory of the virus. 

Martin told reporters this evening that the government must await “further presentations from” the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and that no decision has been made. 

Martin added to this at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party tonight, saying there has been a “sudden increase of cases” which is leading the government to reconsider next week’s easing of restrictions. 

“There are some issues of concern with COVID. There has been a sudden increase of cases and mortality has been rising compared to the summer,” he said.

“We will weigh everything up as we progress towards the 22nd.”

Martin added that the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) is expected to make the recommendation on booster vaccines over the coming days. 

Once made, the government “will ensure that the vaccines will be rolled out without delay,” he said. 

NPHET to assess situation

A meeting of senior officials this afternoon heard that Ireland’s Covid-19 situation has taken an unexpected turn, throwing into doubt the further easing of remaining restrictions next month.

NPHET will meet next week to assess the current situation ahead of the planned lifting of most Covid restrictions on 22 October.

Speaking earlier today, the Taoiseach said that he has heard a report from today’s meeting that it is “a matter of concern”. 

“There was a meeting of senior officials this morning chaired by my Secretary General. The presentation by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Ronan Glynn was a serious one,” Martin said.

The trajectory of the disease has taken a wrong turn. There has been what’s described as a sudden increase in the last week of case numbers. I think we’re looking at over 2,000 case numbers today.

“They want to see more data, they want to analyse this a bit more. And so we’re going to reflect on it. And we will engage with the public health authorities and the HSE obviously in the lead up to next week and we will make a final decision closer to that date.”

“Suffice to say that it’s very important that the public at large realise that Covid has not gone away, that the variant is a dangerous one,” he added.

Numbers are higher in hospitals than we would like them to be, over 400 now. They are having an impact on the hospital system.

On 22 October all remaining Covid-19 restrictions are scheduled to be lifted, including requirements for social distancing, indoor mask-wearing and limits on numbers at events. It is also planned that entry requirements such as vaccination certs or testing will be removed.  

Asked whether he could guarantee this would go ahead as planned, Martin said: “I can’t guarantee you right now, but I mean, we have to wait for for further presentation from NPHET, but you know no decisions have been made. 

At tonight’s Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar also said the rising Covid numbers are a cause for concern and “the metrics are worrying and going in the wrong direction”.

He outlined that more than 300,000 adults have not taken the vaccine, saying that while this is a personal choice for everyone, the choice has effects on other people.

The Fine Gael leader also said Government will discuss the rising Covid numbers and make a decision on the 22 October reopening date at next Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

Compelling evidence

Despite the Taoiseach’s comments that no decision has yet been made, other government figures have said that there would need to be “compelling evidence” to alter plans for reopening on 22 October. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney told RTÉ’s News at One that the government will listen to experts and take the scientific advice in making any decisions. 

Coveney said that the government will “wait to see what recommendations come through”, but said “we’re on track to move ahead with the removal of restrictions on 22 October”.

“The message is clear, this pandemic is not over. We still have a lot of Covid in the community,” Coveney said. 

“We also have a lot of protection … but that doesn’t mean that we can let our guard down,” he said. 

A briefing of senior government officials this afternoon was told that the incidence of Covid-19 is rising across all age groups and that the positivity rate is now above one. 

Health officials present at the meeting said they will need to asses the data further this week but that increased demand for testing, testing positivity and hospitalisations is a cause for concern. 

It’s believed the recent rise is due to a slippage in prevention measures like mask-wearing, increased socialisation and indoor gatherings.

The briefing was given by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn and Professor Philip Nolan, NPHET’s chair of modelling, to the Government’s Covid-19 Oversight Group.

After 22 October, requirements on physical distancing, mask-wearing in some settings, limits on attendance and capacity as well as restrictions on wedding attendances are set to be removed.

The requirement to produce a vaccine cert to access most activities or events will also be removed.

Varadkar this morning told Newstalk that the government will have to wait and see what NPHET’s advice is next week. 

Varadkar said he is keen for the government to push ahead with the full reopening, however, he added he “can’t rule out the possibility” of some restrictions remaining in place. 

“The plan is to lift pretty much all legal restrictions on 22 October, to remove the vaccine pass [requirement] from restaurants for example,” he said. 

“But that is something we have to consider next week, depending on the numbers and the advice from NPHET.”

Other senior figures expressed hope that restrictions could still be eased as planned next week, and suggested that the public does not have an appetite to see a delay in the further re-opening of certain sectors beyond 22 October.  

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Speaking to reporters this afternoon, Minister for Tourism and Culture Catherine Martin said that “there’s been no change” to the previously announced timeline for reopening next week.

“We’re still on track, no decision has been taken against what was outlined in early September for the 22 October reopening, having said that if you do look at the ICU numbers and hospitalisations, obviously there is a concern there,” she said.

But as my understanding is NPHET will meet next week and then government will on foot of that meeting but as it stands, we are heading for the full reopening on 22 October and I’m acutely aware of that music venues in particular need it to be actually valuable.

Martin said that it was “time for nightclubs to reopen” as she pointed to the vaccination rate of above 90%.

Martin also said that if nightclubs reopen as planned next week it is still the case that there would be no testing or proof of vaccination required. 

An expert group on antigen testing has been looking into this issue and Martin said the report from the group had not yet been published. 

“We haven’t received the report from the expert advisory group yet, that should come shortly but if we’re waiting for that report it won’t come in time for 22 October,” she said. 

Positivity rate

Speaking to RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne yesterday, HSE National Lead for Testing and Tracing Niamh O’Beirne said the positivity rate in the community is currently at 10%.

Positivity is higher in some counties, including Kerry (15%), Monaghan (13%), Donegal (13%) and Waterford (15%).

O’Beirne said due to increased testing demand in some of these areas additional supports have been put in place.

She said the downward trend in testing began to reverse six days ago and there are more symptomatic people coming forward for testing. Yesterday around 17,000 tests were done in the community.

Yesterday, 1,466 new cases of Covid-19 were reported and there are 402 patients with the disease in hospital, with 73 of those patients being treated in ICU. 

Covid hospitalisation numbers are at their highest since March and O’Beirne said increasing case numbers may result in increase hospitalisations.

“We’re starting to see the median age of those Covid-positive change – that was age 27 a few weeks ago, it’s now 34,” she said.

“What that is showing us is that more people who are older are turning up positive, so less in the teenage ages and up to the twenties and thirties, and more people over the age of 65 turning up Covid positive. Potentially those people would be sicker.”

She said people in their 30s, 40s, 50s are more likely, if they are not vaccinated, to end up in hospital. Between 40% and 50% of Covid patients in hospital are unvaccinated and 69% of Covid patients in ICU are not vaccinated.

With reporting by Cónal Thomas, Michelle Hennessy, Rónán Duffy and Christina Finn

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