Rush to add hundreds of GPs and pharmacists to Covid booster programme in race against Omicron

Government resistant to idea of any major new restrictions over Christmas

The State’s booster campaign is to be overhauled with a massive redeployment of healthcare and public sector staff, who will be asked to prioritise Covid-19 vaccinations in the face of a potentially imminent Omicron wave.

Hundreds more general practitioners and pharmacists will be asked to join the booster programme as the State races against time to give the population adequate protection against the latest Covid-19 variant.

The Government is extremely resistant to the idea of any major new restrictions and is placing the focus firmly on the revised vaccination campaign which will be launched imminently by the HSE.

Total doses distributed to Ireland Total doses administered in Ireland
10,232,590 9,107,139

Many vaccination centres will have extended opening hours, from 8am to 8pm, there will be extra centres in Dublin and Cork and other areas as well as increased capacity in existing centres and provisions made for record levels of testing.

A source said the inoculation campaign had now entered its most challenging period since last January and that multiple workforces would be redeployed in the latest battle against the novel coronavirus.

The Government will lean heavily on general practitioners as part of a “national effort” to prioritise vaccinations, meaning there will be less availability for other health issues. The plan is to have every GP vaccinating the public, up from the estimated 75 per cent currently providing this service. The Government also wants to see 1,000 pharmacies giving the jabs, up from about 550.

The pace of the campaign will be accelerated and from December 20th the inoculation of high-risk children will begin, with other cohorts following from January 10th.

Next dose

A senior source said that people in their 30s and 40s can expect to hear “this side of Christmas” when they will be offered the next dose.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Tuesday night called on the country to “hold the collective nerve” as the latest figures show that approximately 1.25 million have received a booster shot.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said results on Tuesday indicated that approximately 14 per cent of the State’s new infections were now due to the new Omicron variant.

He updated the Coalition’s three party leaders on Tuesday night about the state of play ahead of a crunch meeting of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) on Thursday.

Government figures are extremely resistant to any suggestion of harsh new restrictions, while Mr Martin has said there is no plan to close schools early “at this stage”.

He told RTÉ that a “collective objective of all of us is to keep schools open”.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said the scheduling of school holiday periods are not due to change.

“There are no plans to alter the school break at Christmas. There is no evidence to suggest that extending school holidays has a public health rationale.”

The Netherlands announced on Tuesday that it would close primary schools a week earlier amid concern about children infecting older relatives over Christmas.

Vulnerable

Meanwhile, there is concern in Government about younger age groups who got the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine and who may be especially vulnerable now as they wait their turn. The issue has been raised with Dr Holohan and the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Tuesday Covid-19 vaccines appeared to have become slightly less effective in preventing severe disease and death, but did provide “significant protection”.

The Omicron variant first detected in South Africa and Hong Kong last month has now been reported by 77 countries and is probably present in most worldwide, but should not be dismissed as “mild”, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant.

“Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”