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Varadkar indicates Covid vaccine passes could be used for hospital and nursing home visits

The Tánaiste said vaccine immunity wanes and ‘that people who are vaccinated can get the virus and can transmit the virus’.

The State has about two million antigen tests in stockpile at the moment.
The State has about two million antigen tests in stockpile at the moment.
Image: RollingNews.ie

TÁNAISTE LEO VARADKAR has said the HSE and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly are looking at how to practically operationalise the Covid vaccine passes for people visiting hospitals and nursing homes. 

The measure was first flagged a number of weeks ago by the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan. 

Speaking at Government Buildings this afternoon, Varadkar said he thinks “it makes a lot of sense”, stating that hospitals are full of vulnerable people who are immune-compromised.

“We don’t want them to get the virus,” he said. 

He added that the hospital is also “full of people with the virus as well”.

“So anything we can do to reduce the risk of the virus being introduced into hospitals makes sense to me,” he said.

Visitors

He said the measure is to facilitate visits, which have been significantly curtailed over the last two years. This is not about stopping visits, he added.

Varadkar said no wants to be responsible for bringing the virus into a hospital, adding that the HSE is “now working at operationalising that and making it practical”.

Dr Anne Moore, a vaccine specialist at UCC’s school of biochemistry, is quoted in The Irish Times this morning as stating that while vaccines were still very effective at preventing severe disease, the initial “bonus” of not transmitting the virus to others appears to have decreased over time.

Covid Pass

“Vaccinated people over time are spreading as much virus as unvaccinated people and we don’t have a lot of unvaccinated – we have some but not that many – and our [vaccination] rate’s really high.”

When the comments were put to the Tánaiste this afternoon, and he was asked whether it was a concern that government policy was relying on the Covid Pass rather than antigen testing, Varadkar said: 

We do know the vaccine immunity wanes and that means that people who are vaccinated can get the virus and can transmit the virus. And as time goes on, they become more likely to get it and more likely to transmit it as their immunity wanes.

He said the booster programme will play a role and is likely to be expanded to a wider cohort of people “in the not too distant future”.

“We know from Israel, for example, where their booster vaccine programme has been enormously successful. They’ve got down to a few hundred cases a day now, whereas they had close to 10,000 not too long ago.

“So I think that is very much the direction of travel, a very extensive booster programme to get on top of transmission. And that’s that’s what the government very much has in mind.”

Varadkar said there is a levelling off or fall in the number of cases attached to people over 80, which he said could be an indication that the booster programme is working.

“We know the vaccines are extraordinarily successful at preventing people from dying from Covid, preventing you from getting very sick from Covid, but they don’t prevent you from getting Covid.

“It’s still possible to get Covid even when you’re vaccinated, but the chances of you getting very sick or dying is very, very low… but when you go to hospital, nearly half of people in hospital aren’t vaccinated… and in the ICU well over half – nearly 60% – of people ICU are not vaccinated…

“They tend to be people with underlying conditions, compromised immunity. So vaccines really work, that’s indisputable now… there’s nobody in ICU because they had a vaccine. But there are people that may be there because they didn’t have a vaccine,” said Varadkar.

Cases in Europe

Dr Mike Ryan, director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, told a panel discussion at the online MacGill Summer School today that there are issues around immunity:

 “We are just not reaching a point where we have enough immunity in the population that can stop virus transmission and we are very, very unlikely to reach that given the current way the virus is transmitted.”

Cases will remain to be a challenge in Europe, he said, despite being the one of the most highly vaccinated regions in the world.

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He said vaccines are “superb” at preventing hospitalisations and death but don’t prevent all the infections. Ryan said vaccinated people can be infected and can pass on the infection.

Antigen testing 

The Cabinet Covid sub committee received a report last night on antigen testing with the expert group advising that the best use antigen testing is for people to use it as a self test.

Varadkar said the experts are not advocating that antigen testing be used on thousands of people attending a concert or a match or nightclub, with the Tánaiste stating that it would not be very practical.

“What they’re advocating and advising is that we operate self test regime. And we also need to be very clear to people as to what we’re saying to them. If you’re symptomatic, you need to PCR test.

“However, if you’re vaccinated with no symptoms, actually tests can be an additional layer of protection to give you additional reassurance that you’re not infectious,” he said. 

The State has about two million tests in stockpile at the moment.

“We just need to make a decision now over the next couple of days as to how best to get them out to people, whether it’s through pharmacies, whether it’s through the post, there are various different options” he said.

Despite concerns about the vaccines waning in terms of infection and transmissibility, Varadkar defended the use of the Covid Pass, though he said he would prefer that it would not be needed. 

“My natural instincts like most people in government is towards civil liberties. I’d much rather we didn’t have to have this Pass system at all. And I’d much rather if it was gone by now. We had hoped it would be gone by now,” he said. 

He said the advice from NPHET is that it helps reduce the transmission of the virus. 

“I respect the right of conscientious objectors not to be vaccinated, not to carry a vaccine pass. That is their choice. But where our choices impact on other people that’s different. So for example, if you’re going into a setting where you could potentially introduce the virus, that’s about more than your rights, you have to consider other people’s rights too. So a person’s rights are not unqualified,” he added.

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