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NPHET to brief coalition party leaders this evening

The meeting this evening takes place prior to NPHET’s meeting on Thursday.

Updated Dec 14th 2021, 7:00 PM

THE THREE PARTY leaders will meet with the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan and senior members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) this evening to get an update on the Omicron variant. 

Dr Holohan is to brief the Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, though sources state that tonight’s meeting is just an update, with no major decisions expected to be taken.

The meeting this evening takes place prior to NPHET’s meeting on Thursday, where  government sources fear public health experts will recommend further restrictions ahead of Christmas. 

It is understood the meeting is taking place as the Taoiseach is traveling to Brussels for an EU Council meeting tomorrow and will be away for NPHET’s meeting later in the week. 

Given the drama that occurred in relation to NPHET’s letter leaking to the media earlier this month, prior to members of government having sight of the new recommendations relating to restrictions on household visits, hospitality, and live events, sources have said it is prudent for the three leaders to meet with the CMO before Thursday’s meeting so as to get a steer on what might be coming down the line later this week. 

In government circles it is widely expected that NPHET will present “stark” modelling on the new variant, and that public health experts will recommend the tightening of restrictions following their meeting later this week. 

Concerns have been raised in government about such moves given that hospitalisations are falling and case numbers are stable, with many pointing to how Ireland is tracking much better than NPHET’s optimistic modelling. 

It is also widely suspected that this will continue to be the case with any new modelling presented to government.

While sources state that no one knows for sure what Dr Holohan will advise, speculation is rife that further restrictions on household mixing will be recommended, and perhaps further opening hour curtailments on hospitality, as has been the case in some other countries. 

Sources have said no other European country has closed restaurants or bars in the wake of the Omicron variant, nor has South Africa – and they don’t want such measures to be taken in Ireland. However, they also point out that Ireland has been an outlier on many occasions. 

“Nothing would surprise me in terms of recommendations,” said one senior source. 

‘Hold the collective nerve’

Micheál Martin told the Six One News this evening that the Government want to “tease out” the potential impact of the Omicron variant, but said he cannot rule anything out in regards to restrictions.

“We all need to hold the collective nerve here. We’ve been through different waves of the pandemic, we’ll get over this wave as well,” he said.

It’s really about working collectively, using our common sense in terms of personal behavior. People are doing that already, and that’s the context in this phase of the pandemic. It would be different for earlier phases of the pandemic, and as we go through this, we need to adapt, we need to evaluate how we performed in earlier phases, and adjust accordingly.

Martin said that recent research has shown that around 61% of people have cancelled activities and that 81% of people have said that they will adjust their behaviour are already planning a quieter Christmas.

He also praised the booster programme, and said he was “heartened” by the public’s response to the health measures. 

“I think people have learned a lot during the pandemic. They are responding behaviorally in terms of reducing socialisation, that has had an impact on leveling out and reducing hospitalizations and ICU admissions, and I pay tribute to people for that common sense approach to what is a very frustrating and long pandemic,” he added.

Speaking on Newstalk this evening, Eamon Ryan said it is not inevitable that NPHET will take a “cautious approach” and advise that further restrictions be imposed.

“What’s happening is the Irish people are wise to the risk and actually are cutting back on the amount of social contacts they have,” he said.

“They are taking care because they hear about this every day and they’re aware of the risks. So I think we shouldn’t underestimate that kind of common sense, and the ability of the Irish people to actually adjust their behaviour in a way that is suitable to the risk that is out there.”

He said he listened to NPHET with “the greatest of respect”, but praised the booster rollout and said it was “our frontline best defence” against the Omicron variant.

“The people have really bought into that we will, through our vaccination scheme, protect ourselves and I think it’s absolutely right to recognise that and double down on that as our immediate and frontline defense response.”

It is understood there was no discussion at Cabinet today on the situation with schools. 

Ministers were told that the HSE plan for accelerating the booster campaign will be published in the coming days. Cabinet was told that staffing resources are to be increased, more GPs and pharmacies will be giving jabs, and the 40-49 year olds will get a date shortly for when they can get their booster. 

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A timeline for the vaccination of 5-11 year olds will also be made clear under the new plan, as will other age cohorts, it is understood. 

Government wants to start hitting the 250,000 booster doses per week and above in the weeks during December as well as into the new year. 

Higher Education Minister Simon Harris said on Newstalk yesterday evening that “we have to try and find a way of living with this [virus] in 2022″ and that a longer term strategy on how to live alongside Covid-19 is needed. 

When asked about the possibility of restrictions in the new year, given that the UK is considering more restrictions, Harris said when we talk about new restrictions in the UK, we are ignoring the fact that many of the restrictions being discussed are still looser than many of the restrictions currently in place in Ireland.

“They are coming at it from a different starting point,” he said of the UK. 

Restrictions in and of themselves are not a silver bullet, he added. 

Harris said an accelerated booster campaign, ventilation in schools and antigen testing must play an important role in the management of the virus next year.

He said sadly this virus is going to be with us “in some guise” over the next year, “and  people have to live and be enabled and empowered to live”. 

“Harris is right,” said one senior source who said the government needs to look at a “new approach” in dealing with the pandemic, otherwise “this will go on for years”. 

They agreed with comments made by the Taoiseach today before the Cabinet meeting that there is a need for “all hands on deck”, adding that that means there must now be  more vaccines, more testing, better preparation of the hospitals, better masks and mask-wearing, and “proportionate restrictions”. 

Cabinet also approved the donation of vaccine doses to developing nations, with a total of 3,7 million doses being donated by Ireland. Recently, Ireland has donated to countries such as Indonesia, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana and Egypt. 

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