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No appetite for more restrictions among Government sources despite rise in Covid-19 cases

Cabinet sources believe the country needs to ‘ride this out’.

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SENIOR GOVERNMENT SOURCES believe there is no sense that there is a need to reimpose Covid-19 restrictions despite a significant increase in the spread of Covid-19 in recent weeks.

Yesterday saw 5,483 new cases of the virus confirmed by health authorities, the fifth-highest daily number since the pandemic began.

But Cabinet sources who spoke to The Journal said there is no appetite among government to “go backwards”.

One source echoed comments made by the Taoiseach in recent days that a move towards another lockdown is not on the cards. 

“What would be the point of another lockdown?” they asked, noting that hospitalisations are at a manageable and haven’t skyrocketed.

There are currently 549 Covid-19 patients in hospital, of which 96 are in ICU – compared with 498 Covid-19 patients in hospital, 78 of them in ICU, on Monday.

Other Cabinet sources said they are satisfied that high incidence rates are not translating into serious illness or deaths.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) confirmed on Wednesday that there were 74 deaths notified to them in the previous week – a rate of roughly ten people per day.

That compares with dozens of deaths in January, when daily case figures were similar to yesterday’s number. 

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan nevertheless wrote to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly following a meeting of public health officials on Thursday, amid concerns about the rising number of Covid-19 cases.

He informed the minister that NPHET had recommended the extension of the Covid vaccine passes to sectors outside the hospitality industry and that government should advice more home-working. 

NPHET also advised that people should work from home if possible and socialise less, but government sources stated that there has been no change in policy around the phased return to work on site, and there will be no recommendation to mandate remote working. 

One source said that NPHET is merely formalising comments made by Dr Ronan Glynn in a Twitter video recorded in his office last month, when the Deputy Chief Medical Officer said the idea is work from home if that is an option to an employee.

Government policy

Another source voiced how there is a level of frustration at Cabinet level with advice being issued as if it was government policy.

Using the working from home remarks as an example, they said the government is being accused of “mixed messaging”, but pointed out that NPHET recommendations are just recommendations until the Cabinet decides.

Government will consider any recommendations arising at the next Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

While the extension of the Covid Pass has been recommended, Cabinet sources said the NPHET advice does not sit well with them and that they may not be in favour of mandating it. 

“My opinion is that that would be very difficult,” the source said, pointing out that there are some people who cannot take the vaccine on medical grounds, separate to those who are not in favour of being vaccinated at all.

“It is not that simple, are we saying those people can’t live a normal life and do the things they want to do because of an underlying condition,” they said. 

“We just have to be careful here.”

Holohan has previously said that a new system is being considered to allow those who cannot get the vaccine on medical grounds to access services.

The Journal asked the Department of Health what progress had been made on the new system, with a spokesperson saying that the matter was given some consideration by NPHET at its meeting of 18 October, and that the issue is being examined further.

The spokesperson also said the Government will consider any recommendations arising at the next Cabinet meeting.

NPHET’s approach

Ministers have also said there has been no indication from the public health experts that more restrictions are on the way, though some raised concerns about NPHET’s approach.

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They fear that a major recommendation – such as a re-imposing of restrictions – could come from NPHET out of the blue. 

They also believe that if that were to happen, it would result in a situation where those around the Cabinet table would deem the advice to be unworkable, yet they would be going against public health experts.

Ministers were asked whether Cabinet would be willing to make their own call in that situation.

A number said the lead would be taken by the Taoiseach, who has stuck rigidly to Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan’s advice to date.

“There is no sense from NPHET that we are yet at the point of needing to re-introduce restriction. It is more a case of doubling down on the ones we have,” said one source. 

“That’s not what NPHET are saying to us.”

Booster frustration

Cabinet sources are also frustrated with the pace of the booster programme, arguing that additional vaccines are working on age-groups who have received them. They have also called for the rollout to everyone, six months after they received their second jab. 

One source also said that while there is a focus on case numbers among those in hospital with Covid-19, they pointed out that around 100 people admitted to hospital over a three-day period this week were found to have the virus after being admitted for something else.

Nevertheless, those in government circles say they have sought explanations as to why the five/seven day average incidence rate is now higher in Ireland than in England, where the figure is now falling.

Overall, senior figures believe the country needs to “ride this out” and to allow vaccines, boosters and natural immunity – given the high case numbers – to reach a peak before falling off. 

“The problem with restrictions is the virus will just bounce back once you lift them,” said one source, who acknowledged that trying to get people on board with new measures would be difficult. 

They added that the CMO is not panicking, but that the risk of restrictions could increase if other countries continue to re-impose restrictions and ICU numbers continue to rise.

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