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Isolation rules for close contacts are being relaxed from today — here's a look at the changes

The new, more relaxed regime is being put in place largely to alleviate staffing issues across the economy.
Jan 14th 2022, 6:00 AM 31,110 11

WE’RE USED TO chopping and changing at this stage — but the new rules around isolation times for people who have Covid-19 and also close contacts of confirmed cases will take a bit of time for us all to wrap our heads around.

Approved by Cabinet earlier this week, the new, more relaxed regime is being put in place largely to alleviate staffing issues across both the public and private sectors.

Thousands of workers have either been out sick with Covid-19 over the past number of weeks or have been unable to attend work due to being named a close contact.

Up until now, anyone with a case of Covid-19, confirmed by a PCR test, was required to isolate at home for a period of ten days.

Close contacts of confirmed cases who did not exhibit symptoms of the virus were also asked to restrict their movements — avoid social contact, stay home from work and don’t go to the shops, in other words — for ten days if they had not yet received their booster jab, or five days if they had.

To complicate matters further, the antigen testing requirements for close contacts depended on whether you had received a booster and whether you had received it more or less than seven days before becoming a close contact:

  • If you had received a booster more than seven days beforehand, you were required to antigen test yourself three times while restricting your movements, with two days between tests.
  • If it was less than seven days or if you had not received your booster, you were required to antigen test yourself five times with two days between tests.

But from today, things will be a little different — and in some ways, a bit simpler.

Confirmed cases:

Anyone who tests positive for Covid-19 will now have to self-isolate for a period of just seven rather than ten days.

This will include anyone aged between four and 39 who gets a positive result on an antigen test. They will no longer need a confirmatory PCR test. Why? Because the HSE says they will be able to log their positive antigen results with the health service via an online portal, which is set to open today.

Close contacts:

Provided they have no symptoms of the virus, close contacts of confirmed cases will no longer have to isolate as long as they have received their booster jab.

Close contacts who have not received a booster will still have to restrict their movements but only for seven days rather than 10.

These rules will apply to both household close contacts (people who live or sleep in the same home as a confirmed case) and non-household close contacts (anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes with a confirmed case 48 hours before they developed symptoms or 24 hours before they did their test).

All close contacts are nonetheless advised to take an antigen test before entering crowded, enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces and are also asked to wear an appropriate face mask in those spaces. 

Workplaces: 

Having campaigned for weeks to have the isolation periods reviewed, employers, naturally, are very pleased with the changes announced earlier this week. 

Ibec’s Danny McCoy said earlier this week that the new regime “will enable many struggling businesses to take their first steps towards addressing crippling staffing challenges”.

True, it means that more employees — particularly in essential services like manufacturing and food retail — will be able to return to the workplace.

Even if there has been a Covid outbreak in their home, they will still be able to come into work — provided, of course, they have no symptoms and they have received their booster jab.

But experts and worker representatives have warned that it can’t be a free-for-all with employers demanding their workers return to offices from today.

Everyone is still advised to work from home where possible, for one.

“That’s what employers should be following in terms of the guidelines,” said employment law expert Caroline Reidy, managing director of the HR Suite yesterday.

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Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1′s Morning Ireland programme, she said, “If the employer has done a risk assessment to ensure that people can come safely back into the office for reasons that are necessary and the employee wants to come back then that can be looked at.

“However, I think work from home needs to be the primary advice particularly for the next couple of weeks.”

People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy today launched the Personal Protective Equipment (Covid-19) Bill, which would amend the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to ensure employers provide employees with FFP-2 grade masks or higher where necessary during the pandemic. 

With reporting by Hayley Halpin

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