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Explainer: Why are Covid restrictions lifting now?

Most measures will be lifted tomorrow. Experts say there are good reasons for this.

File image of Dublin city centre.
File image of Dublin city centre.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Jan 21st 2022, 9:22 PM

THERE HAS BEEN a sense of optimism across the country today after word filtered out that Cabinet has approved plans to lift rules on hospitality along with most other Covid-19 restrictions from tomorrow. 

With daily case numbers still in the thousands, the wide-ranging recommendation from NPHET last night may have come as a surprise to some. It’s understandable that some people feel like it has all come on very quickly. 

Professor of immunology at Dublin City University, Christine Loscher, said that there will still be a “degree of caution” from some people, especially those who are more at risk of severe illness. 

“The bottom line is that nobody is saying things are over, but the threat to public health is not there in the same way as it was before,” she told The Journal

“The likelihood is that with so much opening up, we might see increases in case numbers. But we know from what happened over Christmas that even when case numbers were high, they didn’t translate into severe illness and hospitalisations [in the same way as previous variants].”

In terms of ongoing high case numbers, professor Loscher said that these were more significant in the past “because we were dealing with other variants that were translating into hospitals and ICUs”.

As of this morning, 892 people were in hospital with Covid-19, including 88 in intensive care. 

“Our case numbers gave us an indication of how it might impact on the healthcare system, whether we could cope with the number of people getting severely sick.

But because we are heavily vaccinated and heavily boosted, because population immunity is high and because this variant in general is not making people as sick – the combination of those things means that high case numbers are not impacting on us the way that they used to.

“If we had 12,000 Delta cases, we’d be way more concerned than we are now.”

She highlighted that booster Covid-19 vaccine doses are 90% effective against severe infection and hospitalisation. 

“That’s why it’s okay now to loosen restrictions. We’re not really looking at case numbers anymore because our immunity is so high – what we’re really looking at is: what is the impact of the current variant on public health in terms of severity of infection, hospitalisations, ICU and deaths, and it is not the same relationship as it would have been for other variants.

Even if another variant comes along, we have a high degree of protection against severity of infection and I think that’s the most important thing to know coming out of this.

She said there is also a “degree of comfort” for people more at risk from the virus in that Omicron is “not as much of a threat to them as previous variants”, but that caution at this time is “understandable”.  

“Even though we as individuals, we should still do everything we can to prevent getting an infection with Covid-19 because nobody wants to be infected with Covid, I do think that there is a larger degree of safety in everyday life now that we didn’t have before.

I’m not immunocompromised but I will still be cautious, wear my FFP2 mask. I will still decide what kind of social contact I want to have. 

“I don’t think everyone is just going to throw all caution to the wind and I do think that peoples’ own personal level of responsibility about keeping them safe will still keep everybody safer.”

‘It will be bumpy’

Despite restrictions now lifting here and in other parts of the world including the UK, experts have been clear that this does not mean the pandemic is over.  

World Health Organization Special Envoy on Covid-19 David Nabarro said earlier today that people should not be “hopping mad” if restrictions are re-imposed down the line over “an unexpected surge”.

“That is exactly as it should be. You don’t have a nice, neat, smooth trajectory from where we are now to where we hope to be when the pandemic is over,” he told RTÉ radio’s News at One

It will be bumpy. It will be difficult. We must expect surprises. We must even suspect perhaps more tricky mutations of the Omicron coming up in the long-term.

He said many countries are in the same position as Ireland – trying to ease restrictions while also not moving too quickly.

“The big question for each government is just how quickly do you go about doing this?”

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He said he was “really rather happy” hearing NPHET’s recommendations to get certain elements like hospitality back to normal while retaining mask-wearing in shops and on public transport. 

“It makes sense to me that we treat this virus with respect and we also do everything possible to protect people who might perhaps get severely ill as a result of infection from doing so.

I’d really prefer not to see anybody using language to suggest this is mild until we really know the story. I personally do not feel confident that I can say to people in Ireland and I can say to the officials in government who are changed with trying to make the case for changes, I just can’t say to them with a clear conscience this is a mild disease.

“It’s not. It’s a worrisome disease and it’s still worrisome even with Omicron.”

Assistant professor of virology at University College Dublin, Dr Gerald Barry, also said it is “premature” to believe the pandemic is over when the virus is still infecting people at high levels. 

“I think one side of me is so excited to tell people, to tell my kids who haven’t lived a normal life for the last two years, to tell everyone that actually restrictions are being released,” he told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.

“But at the same time I’m very conscious of many, many people in the population that now are actually probably at an increased risk of infection as a result of this decision.

“There is still massive levels of infection in the country, there’s huge chains of transmission happening.

“There is still that risk of infection and particularly for vulnerable groups and vulnerable people, yes there is still that increased risk.

Hopefully, particularly with booster vaccinations, the vast majority of people won’t be severely ill from it. 

“I think there was a big fear about Omicron. That fear in terms of infections played out. We got massive numbers of infections but our hospital system didn’t get overwhelmed.

“We didn’t know that three or four weeks ago, we had to be a little cautious coming into that huge wave that we saw.” 

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