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New Covid measures would lift if Omicron risks don't meet 'worst fears', Minister says

The government agreed a number of new measures on hospitality and household visits on Friday.

File image of Minister Michael McGrath.
File image of Minister Michael McGrath.
Image: Sasko Lazarov

Updated Dec 5th 2021, 4:22 PM

MINISTER MICHAEL MCGRATH has said the government would lift the “precautionary” restrictions announced on Friday if further clarity on the Omicron variant “does not meet our worst fears”.

Current evidence suggests this coronavirus variant has the potential to be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines, but as the strain has only been recently detected more research is needed.

Ireland and other countries around the world have implemented travel restrictions and domestic rules in an effort to contain the spread of the variant. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath described new restrictions announced by the government on Friday as “precautionary in nature”.

“We are coming into the Christmas period when inevitably there will be more socialisation,” he said.

“We’ll all want to meet with the people we love and our family and our friends and so on, and we do have a new emerging threat in relation to Omicron and we simply do not have answers to some pretty fundamental questions about what the impact of that will be.

“I expect that if the findings of all of the research that’s going on globally into Omicron find that it does not meet our worst fears, then we will be in a position to remove those restrictions based on public health advice over the period ahead quite quickly.”

It is too soon to say for sure whether Omicron is more transmissible than other variants, but early indications from tracking in South Africa suggest that it is. 

Speaking in Dublin about Omicron on Thursday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said it may be two weeks before scientists have a clearer picture of three important factors relating to the variant: “how infectious it, how virulent and to what degree will the new variant escape vaccines.”

Martin told reporters in Clare today that it is really important that people take up the offer of vaccination because “we know now that the unvaccinated have a disproportionate impact on our health services, on our ICU beds.

“It’s as clear as daylight that you are taking real risks if you don’t get vaccinated in terms of your own personal health and the health of others,” said Martin. 

“So, vaccination is key but also the emergence of antivirals will be very important early in the new year in terms of helping to treat people more effectively than perhaps earlier in the pandemic.”

He added that the planned childhood vaccination programme should commence early in the new year.

From 7 December to 9 January, nightclubs will close, visits to private homes are recommended to be limited to a maximum of four households in total, many indoor events are limited to 50% capacity and indoor hospitality will maintain its midnight closing time with further social distancing measures in place. 

NPHET and government 

McGrath said it is “vitally important” to maintain the government’s “good working relationship” with public health experts on the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET). 

It follows recent reports including in yesterday’s Irish Independent that said tensions are growing between members of NPHET and the government. The newspaper reported that NPHET members must now seek approval from the government press office before appearing in the media. 

“I believe, in general, the public trusts our public health advisors and that relationship between government and Nphet has been at the heart of our approach to managing this pandemic,” McGrath said. 

I fully support the decisions that we have made. We engaged with NPHET on Friday and they explained very clearly the rationale and the logic behind the recommendations.

Speaking to RTÉ radio this afternoon, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said members of NPHET “will continue to have the ability to comment on what is going on with this disease”.

“We’re only looking to ensure that for all who are commenting on this disease and helping us in our efforts that we’ve the same framework in place,” Donohoe said. 

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The minister added that the government will decide in the next few days about the possibility of raising the €5,000 weekly cap on financial support for bigger businesses impacted by Covid-19 restrictions. 

Sinn Féin has accused the government of “mixed messaging” on the new Covid regulations, after the Tánaiste said that tightening restrictions at the current time was “peculiar”.

In an interview with the Business Post, Leo Varadkar said: “I think it is peculiar that we are tightening restrictions at a time when things are improving, from cases, ICU figures, and hospitalisations.”

However, the Tánaiste also said that he understood why the decisions were being made due to fears after last Christmas resulted in an upsurge of virus cases. 

Sinn Féin TD Mairéad Farrell told RTÉ that the irony of Government complaints about leaks would not be lost on anyone, when it “had been plagued by leaks”.

She said: “The reality is that this kind of mixed messaging is of benefit to no-one.

It adds to the concerns of the general public, of businesses that are trying to stay open, of people who are wondering if they are going to have a job next week.

“It is incredibly frustrating for the general public.

“Having mixed messages now is not helpful to businesses or to those people who are going to work to try and earn a living.”

Additional reporting by Adam Daly and Press Association.  

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