Coalition leaders to discuss Omicron variant with Nphet on Monday

UK to require arrivals from outside CTA to take PCR test amid Omicron concern

Cape Town International Airport. A number of countries have introduced travel bans and restrictions on passengers from southern African countries in a bid to contain the new variant. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

Cape Town International Airport. A number of countries have introduced travel bans and restrictions on passengers from southern African countries in a bid to contain the new variant. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

 

The Omicron variant and the wider pressures on the health service from the fourth wave of the pandemic will be discussed at a meeting of the leaders of the Coalition parties and the National Public Health Emergency Team on Monday.

The Nphet is expected to meet tomorrow and consider the views of its Epidemiological Team which has been monitoring the fast-evolving developments around the Omicron variant, which has recently seen more cases discovered in different countries.

After this meeting, it is understood chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan will then brief the three party leaders, ahead of the scheduled Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, where Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan has said the possible reintroduction of mandatory hotel quarantine in response to concerns over Omicron is set to be the first item on the agenda.

In a statement, the Nphet said it was “considering further required measures” as countries move to prevent the spread of Omicron. “Regulations are being drawn up urgently to give effect to the new travel and home quarantine policies.”

A number of countries have introduced travel bans and restrictions on passengers from southern African countries in a bid to contain the new variant. Cases have been detected in a number of countries, including 13 in the Netherlands and three in the UK.

PCR testing

In the UK new restrictions, including PCR testing for arrivals into the UK, will apply from Tuesday morning.

However, an exemption will apply to passengers in the Common Travel Area (CTA) which covers Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the Channel Islands, and which allows effectively unrestricted travel.

The Irish Government is to consider the steps taken by the UK and a senior source said all responses to the variant were now under review.

In Ireland, new rules introduced on Friday sees people arriving here from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Mozambique required to present a “not-detected” pre-flight PCR result, regardless of vaccination status, and quarantine at home for 10 days, undergoing a further two PCR tests.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has changed its travel advisory to “avoid non-essential travel” to these countries.

The travel restrictions have prompted a scramble for passengers to get home from these countries with many Irish nationals struggling to secure a flight.

The Munster Rugby team, in South Africa for a series of matches that were ultimately cancelled, has been forced to prolong its stay after a member of the party tested positive.

Early evidence suggests Omicron has an increased reinfection risk, according to the World Health Organisation, which has designated the variant as being of concern.

Earlier on Sunday it was confirmed that a further 3,735 cases of coronavirus had been reported in the State. As of 8am, 566 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised, 117 of whom are in ICU.

In a statement, Dr Holohan said: “While there is much attention on new variants, incidence of the delta variant of Covid-19 remains too high in Ireland, with widespread infection in the community.”

He continued: “The Nphet Epidemiological Surveillance Team continue to meet this weekend to monitor the situation in relation to the new [Omicron] variant... and regulations are being drawn up to give effect to the new travel and home quarantine policies.”

Impact

Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan on Sunday said real impact of the Omicron variant would not be known for a number of weeks.

“It will take two to three weeks to see, well, does it increase transmissibility, does it increase illness or can it get around vaccines,” he told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics programme. Mr Ryan said Ireland is doing “a lot of testing”, but that the Omicron variant had not yet been picked up.

Dr Cillian de Gascun, head of the National Virus Reference Laboratory and Nphet member, said the State needs to operate on the basis that the Omicron variant could “change the game”. Dr de Gascun on Sunday said the mutations this variant has are “concerning”.

However, while he said that the variant appears to be more transmissible, it does not necessarily mean vaccines will be ineffective against it.

He said there has not been an examination of the severity of the virus yet, as there is typically a lag between infection and hospitalisation.

Dr de Gascun said the variant is a “concern” among Irish health officials who are meeting over the weekend to discuss it.

“We are still in the middle of a very significant Delta wave that we need to control first. We don’t know yet what Omicron does in a Delta wave,” he told Newstalk’s On the Record.

He added that there was a need for society to think about the next three months, and not just Christmas.

Separately, in comments to the Sunday Business Post newspaper, Dr de Gascun said that if Omicron is more transmissible than the Delta variant, then it is a “matter of time” before the new variant arrives in Ireland.

Dr de Gascun told the Sunday Business Post there would be a ramping up of genome sequencing, and every positive Covid-19 sample since November 1st would be screened for Omicron.