Coveney expects ‘significant removal’ of Covid-19 restrictions next week

HSE chief says rising cases a warning sign rather than a ‘panic button moment’

Concerns overescalating Covid infections and risks to the health system have cast doubt on plans to remove almost all restrictions in just over a week’s time. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos

Concerns overescalating Covid infections and risks to the health system have cast doubt on plans to remove almost all restrictions in just over a week’s time. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos

 

There is likely to be a “significant removal” of Covid-19 restrictions at the end of next week, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said, despite concerns about a recent turn for the worse in a number of pandemic indicators.

A further 1,914 cases were reported on ThursdayFriday, and rising infection numbers, hospitalisations and test positivity rates have caused alarm in health and political circles ahead of the proposed removal of most remaining pandemic restrictions from next Friday, October 22nd.

HSE chief executive Paul Reid on Friday said the the recent rise in case numbers is “not a panic button” moment but an early warning signal.

Mr Coveney told reporters in Cork that he did not think the Government would “abandon plans to remove restrictions at the end of next week”. He said the question was whether they would be able to do so “as much as we would have liked”.

“We have seen a 12 per cent increase in the number of people testing positive in the last week – of course that is a concern. It’s not a big surprise, but it’s something we need to watch,” he said.

“The Government will do what we always do when we make a decision in relation to Covid. We will take public health advice, we will look at the science and we will make an informed decision.

“I think the likelihood is that there will be a significant removal of restrictions at the end of next week, but whether we will be able to go as far as we would have liked or as far as we had announced would be the case remains to be seen.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin declined to speculate on whether the regulations would be relaxed and stressed that the Government will wait until it receives advice from public health experts next week before making any decision.

Mr Martin said the Government will consult closely with the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) before going ahead with the planned reopening.

Mr Martin said that he agreed with Mr Reid that there needs to be a careful assessment of the data, as he counselled against “punishing the panic button”. He said the value of vaccination in the current phase of the fight against Covid-19 should not be underestimated.

Earlier, Minister for Health Simon Harris said perspective was needed in the discussion on the further easing of restrictions given more than 90 per cent of adults in the State are vaccinated against the disease.

He told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that the Government did not face a binary choice whether to proceed with reopening or to pause. There could, he said, be a third option where some restrictions were eased while “retaining vaccine certs or face masks for a bit longer”. He said any advice over the easing of restrictions needed to come from doctors not politicians.

Mr Reid acknowledged that the hospital system was under pressure with the numbers presenting to emergency departments some 20 per cent above pre-pandemic levels.

“This is going to be a very challenging winter,” he said, adding private hospitals would be part of the solution.

HSE chief operations officer Anne O’Connor earlier told Newstalk there were just 100 available hospital beds in the State last night out of the 12,000 across the health system.

She said the health service was going to do things in a different way to try to keep people out of hospital amid rising pressures due to Covid-19 and other matters.

“It’s only October, but it’s like the first week in January” she told Newstalk Breakfast of the numbers attending emergency departments. “Hospitals are very busy – there are significant numbers attending emergency departments, far in excess of what we saw in 2020 and 2019.”

Ms O’Connor said the HSE intended to focus on community care, utilising nursing homes for step down beds and home support to create extra capacity.

Vaccine protection

Mr Reid told RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne programme that Covid-19 vaccines were protecting people from illness, hospitalisation and death, but that the evidence suggested the small proportion of unvaccinated people was having a disproportionate impact on the health service.

He said that while “just 8 per cent” of the adult population remained unvaccinated, 67 per cent of those in intensive care were unvaccinated, with the cohort 17 times more likely to be hospitalised if they contracted the virus.

Mr Reid said people returning to offices and engaging in more social activity were a factor in the rising case numbers.

“This is a very early warning for us all,” he said.

Regarding a Covid-19 vaccine booster campaign, Mr Reid said the HSE was ready and willing but was awaiting expert advice from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac).

In the meantime, however, he said there was a need to encourage the 300,000 or so people who had not had a vaccine, and 70,000 who had received a first but not a second dose, to do so.

Niac chair Prof Karina Butler said there were several factors behind the recent growth in Covid-19 infections but the “real elephant in the room” in the debate was the high level of unvaccinated people in the country.

She said it was necessary to examine why that was the case and to fill the gaps in information to give those people the trust and confidence that getting vaccinated was the way forward.

Prof Butler said now might not be the best time to give booster vaccines to the general population and that it could be more beneficial to wait longer and to help instead with the global vaccine distribution.

She told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland there was no specific date on which Niac would be giving advice to the Government on a wider booster programme as work was ongoing collating evidence.

Booster shots

The resurgence in Covid-19 cases across age groups will put pressure on the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) to recommend vaccine booster shots for more of the population, including healthcare workers who were among the first to get vaccinated, according to Dr Catherine Motherway, head of the intensive care unit at University Hospital Limerick.

Dr Motherway said there had been a Covid outbreak at the Limerick hospital and other hospitals with vaccinated healthcare workers becoming infected.

“If we are getting breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated healthcare workers which will drive outbreaks in hospitals, we will have to deal with that.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has called for a “very extensive booster programme” to suppress rising Covid numbers.

Dr Motherway said that nationally, two-thirds of Covid-19 patients in ICUs were unvaccinated and a third were vaccinated with “very significantly underlying health conditions”.

The vaccinated patients in ICU are predominantly among the older age groups who are currently receiving their third booster shots: the over-80s and people aged 65 and over in residential care settings.

Dr Motherway said that unvaccinated people who have ended up in ICU as young as in their late teens as well as more pregnant women or recently pregnant women than in previous waves. The median age of people in ICU has fallen to 54, she said.

About a quarter of the country’s ICUs beds are now occupied by Covid-19 patients. “That is a huge number of people occupying our critical care beds. That means other people can’t use those beds which leads to deferred high-risk elective or scheduled care. It is really important that we try to control this particular surge,” said Dr Motherway.

Dr Motherway urged the unvaccinated to get the jab given how infectious the Delta variant was and how the entire population will eventually be exposed to the virus during a pandemic.