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CMO says PCR testing 'no longer needed' for most under 55s and suggests concluding NPHET

Dr Tony Holohan recommended change to the priority for PCR testing.

Image: Sam Boal

Updated Feb 18th 2022, 5:30 PM

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has confirmed that regulations that required people to wear masks on public transport, in schools and in shops are set to be lifted from Monday week, as NPHET’s letter to the Health Minister was published this evening.

In Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan’s latest advice to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, it stated that PCR testing will now differentiate between those at high risk of Covid-19 who would benefit from earlier treatment, and other people.

“As such, testing will no longer be needed for clinical or public health purposes for otherwise healthy younger people (<55 years) with symptoms,” it said, adding that the HSE “will support access to antigen testing for those in this group” as part of a transition period.

The letter also said that PCR testing will be recommended to symptomatic people who: have not had a booster dose and are aged 55 years and older; those deemed most at-risk and members of their households; carers; and pregnant women.

Asymptomatic close contacts will not need to restrict their movements, according to this latest advice; but if they develop symptoms, they should still self-isolate.

Dr Holohan also states in his letter that given the stage of the pandemic that we have reached, “it is now deemed timely to conclude the work of the NPHET”.

“My office will continue to closely monitor the epidemiological profile of the disease and I have today sent you a specific proposal on the appropriate structure and processes for this.”

The letter also stressed the need to shift from “emergency-type processes and measures” but also to keep maintaining “high levels of readiness for Covid-19 outbreaks” and new variants, meaning a “significant strengthening of existing disease surveillance systems”.

Cabinet is due to meet on Tuesday to consider NPHET’s latest, and last advice.

Taoiseach: Govt will be accepting NPHET’s advice

Speaking earlier today, the Taoiseach confirmed that the Government would be accepting the advice set out by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) on making mask-wearing advisory rather than mandatory.

“We are moving from the emergency phase of the pandemic to a new transitionary phase,” said Martin.

Martin said that NPHET were satisfied with the current trajectory of Covid-19 and that a public-health rationale for the restrictions was no longer there.

He did say, however, that the disease was not gone now that restrictions are being removed, but that the conversion rate from Covid-19 cases to hospitalisations was not significant.

The Journal reported earlier this week that it is expected that face-mask wearing is likely to become optional shortly in areas such as shops and on public transport.

While mask-wearing will no longer be mandatory in retail, education and public transport settings, it will remain mandatory in healthcare settings.

People, where they feel comfortable, will take their own decisions and personal behaviour is going to be very important here.

“People may feel more comfortable wearing masks, but they won’t be mandatory.”

Martin said that he would continue to wear a mask in shops and on public transport.

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The Taoiseach also confirmed that NPHET would be wound down, following recommendations by the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan.

He thanked the team for their work over the pandemic, saying that many had done so voluntarily.

“I want to pay tribute to NPHET and thank all the members of NPHET for the work that they have done,” said Martin.

In particular, he thanked Holohan for his work as CMO during the pandemic in what he said were “very difficult circumstances” over a longer period than most people expected.

“We saw other jurisdictions where public health advice was put to one side, with very negative consequences for the people in such jurisdictions.”

Fundamentally, if you look at the mortality rate of Ireland relative to others, I think Ireland has performed relatively well in relation to Covid-19.

Martin said despite the plans to wind down the team, the Government would continue to require public health advice on Covid-19 and potential future variants.

He also said that as the country moves from the emergency phase, lessons needed to be learned from the pandemic to ensure that the health system is resilient and that there is a strong public health element within the health service.

- Contains reporting by Gráinne Ní Aodha.

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