Masks for schoolchildren nine and over set to be recommended

Cabinet poised to approve Nphet advice with PCR tests for travellers likely to be discussed

The Cabinet is likely to endorse National Public Health Emergency Team recommendations that children aged nine and over wear masks when in school. Photograph: Getty

The Cabinet is likely to endorse National Public Health Emergency Team recommendations that children aged nine and over wear masks when in school. Photograph: Getty

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The Cabinet is likely to endorse National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) recommendations that children aged nine and over wear masks in school and reduce indoor socialising when it meets on Tuesday.

But the Government will not make these legal requirements, instead leaving them as recommendation to schools and parents, while asking them to curtail their children’s contacts.

Ministers are also expected to discuss proposed requirements for incoming travellers to have a negative PCR or professionally administered antigen test within 48-72 hours before they travel to Ireland, according to sources briefed on discussions at Government Buildings on Monday night, as part of precautions to delay the spread of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19.

While discussions were continuing last night, it is expected that this will apply to people travelling from all overseas jurisdictions, including Britain.

On children’s gatherings, it is understood there won’t be a blanket ban on playdates or attending pantomimes. However, one source suggested the advice to parents could be that if they were considering both activities for their children in the same week they should only do one.

In general, the advice for children will be the same as for adults to reduce socialising.

Variant threat

The leaders of the Government parties and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly were briefed by senior Nphet figures including chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan on Monday evening on the current situation and on the emerging threat from the new variant.

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Mr Donnelly said it was likely Omicron was here and that 11 cases were being examined for possible signs of the new variant. However, officials said that while results of those tests would be available in the coming days, it would be two to three weeks before it was clear what exactly was the nature of the threat posed by the new variant.

A Government source said there were some indications that the new variant could turn out to be more transmissible but less severe than the Delta variant.

Countries all over Europe have tightened restrictions on people travelling from southern Africa, where the new variant was first confirmed, while cases have been identified in several EU countries since the weekend.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly says it is likely the Omicron variant is here and that 11 Covid-19 cases are being examined. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly says it is likely the Omicron variant is here and that 11 Covid-19 cases are being examined. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Here it is understood that legislation to revive mandatory hotel quarantine – which was in place earlier this year but which has lapsed from the statute books – will be rushed through the Dáil this week, if the Cabinet approves on Tuesday.

Antigen tests

However, while Ministers are keen to move quickly to delay the spread of the new variant here, there is far more reluctance to introduce new restrictions on social and economic life to cope with the existing fourth wave.

On Monday, the Government confirmed it had abandoned plans to subsidise antigen tests due to the fact that average prices in supermarkets had dropped to about €3 per test.

Mr Donnelly called this a “good result” as it would save the taxpayer having to subsidise such testing.

It is understood that, at a meeting between senior officials and representatives of retailers last week, supermarkets committed to providing the tests at about the same price as subsidised tests would have been sold at pharmacies.

“It just didn’t make any sense,” one source said after discussions between senior health officials and the Department of the Taoiseach, and the plan was dropped. However, Ministers were not told, and they continued to insist that the subsidy plan would go ahead in recent days.

The move has been criticised by opposition politicians. The Social Democrats co-leader, Róisín Shortall, claimed the scrapping of the scheme was a “dereliction of duty”, saying it meant the Government would have “no role in their pricing, availability, accessibility or quality control”.

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane accused the Government of “penny-pinching” and reiterated calls for antigen tests to be made freely available, saying the “rollback” on a subsidy was “deeply disappointing”.

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