Booster vaccines are expected for hundreds of thousands of people in their 50s in a bid to keep the Government’s pandemic policy on track, with Ministers given dire warnings on Monday night about the impact of the current wave on healthcare.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid told a meeting of the Cabinet Covid subcommittee that the health service was now at greater risk than at any time during the pandemic, being hit hard and fast by a wave of Covid while trying to keep other care going.
The Government was said to be “taken aback” at the level of Covid hospitalisations, and the signals were the Coalition was to double down on its policies of wider use of vaccine certs, boosters and antigen testing in a bid to beat back the virus.
The Government also looked set to backtrack on its advice for the phased return to work, with proposals on Monday night discussed that would see workers advised to stay home where possible.
The use of the vaccine pass is set to be extended to include gyms and hairdressers, and there are plans to introduce a subsidy for antigen tests to encourage their greater use.
Indications on Monday night were that tests would be as cheap as possible – no more than around €3 a test, sources said.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said before Monday night’s meeting that he expected advice from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) which would enable the use of Covid-19 booster vaccines to be extended “significantly”. The expectation is that the programme will be expanded to 600,000 people in their 50s as well as younger people with underlying health conditions.
Booster jabs started for people aged 60-79 years earlier this month.
Mr Donnelly said the evidence of the effectiveness of booster vaccines was “incredibly strong”, and it was “all hands on deck in terms of getting the boosters out”.
About 1.4 million people had already been greenlighted for the boosters, with “additional advice” expected from Niac on Monday evening, he said. There was some caution in Government circles on Monday night as the final advice had not yet been received. Niac did not comment.
The UK earlier on Monday approved boosters for everyone over 40 as other European countries reintroduced restrictions.
Modelling presented to the committee suggests that, based on current levels of socialisation, the peak in cases could range between 5,000 and 12,000 a day, with large case numbers lasting into the new year. The peak could happen in late November or early December, the modelling suggests, with a later peak – closer to Christmas – in hospitalisations and ICU referrals.
The models are preliminary and will be refined further when more information on waning immunity emerges.
The forecasts come as the Health Service Executive’s (HSE) newly published winter plan shows that more than 350 hospital beds promised in the HSE’s service plan for this year have yet to be delivered.
Some 795 of the promised 1,152 acute beds are open, according to the document. However, a further 143 beds will be provided by the end of this year and 62 more by the end of March 2022, the plan states.
The Irish Medical Organisation said the plan was “inadequate” to meet the challenges ahead.
Its president, Dr Ina Kelly, said: “Covid has exposed the long-term cost of failing to invest in our health services. Our only response now seems to be to try to force more work out of our exhausted doctors.”