Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is to draft new laws that would allow for the reintroduction of mandatory mask-wearing in an emergency.
All the emergency powers and legislation underpinning the response to the Covid crisis were allowed to lapse earlier this year as the threat from infection subsided following the first and second waves of the Omicron variant. However, Government sources said the intention is now to draft legislation that could be passed quickly by the Oireachtas if it were deemed necessary.
They emphasised that the drafting of the legislation is being undertaken to prepare for winter rather than in response to the recent increase in Covid cases, with the expectation that it may not be drafted until early autumn. There is no change in the current public health advice in place, nor is there any envisaged, Coalition sources said.
The move comes following a continued increase in the number of cases of the virus in the community and in hospitals. There were 751 patients with Covid-19 in hospitals on Tuesday morning, a slight decrease on Monday, which normally has an artificially high number due to delayed discharges over the weekend. However, the number has continuously been rising in recent weeks, and increased by more than two-thirds over the past fortnight.
The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) attributed the recent rise in cases to the prevalence of two Covid-19 sublineages – BA. 4 and BA. 5 – which are replacing the previously prominent Omicron variant. Some 77 per cent of cases in the week ending June 18th were identified as likely being BA. 4 and BA. 5, according to the HPSC.
“This is likely due to their ability to evade immune protection caused by prior infection and/or vaccination, particularly if this immunity has waned over time,” the centre said. “There is currently no indication of any change in infection severity compared to previous Omicron lineages.”
Numbers in ICU remain relatively stable despite the rise in hospitalisations, though there is often a lag between admission to hospital and requiring intensive care. There were 28 Covid-19 patients in ICU on Tuesday morning, down from 35 on Monday and 31 on Sunday.
Testing numbers remain at between 35,000 and 39,000 per week, with a test positivity rate of 35.2 per cent over the past seven days, according to official figures.