Taoiseach Micheál Martin has defended the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic this winter as he confirmed that rules on close contacts would be relaxed from Friday.
Mr Martin said the Cabinet decision that close contacts of confirmed cases no longer needed to restrict their movements for five days – once they have had a booster vaccine – reflected progress in the fight against the Omicron variant of the virus.
It is understood that the measures will come into force at midnight on Thursday, and should enable thousands of people who were staying at home to return to work.
However, the measures only apply to people with no symptoms, and all close contacts will be advised to wear medical masks in crowded spaces for 10 days and take antigen tests, even if they no longer are asked to restrict movements.
People who have not been boosted only have to isolate for seven days, instead of the 10 previously recommended.
The changes come after the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) recommended acceptance of advice from the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), which recommended a relaxation of the rule for countries whose health systems were under severe stress from staff shortages.
Mr Martin said the changes had been made possible by a “very strong” vaccination programme saying more than 10 million doses have now been administered.
He urged those who have not received any Covid-19 vaccines or a booster to avail of them as it will protect from severe illness.
“We have to remain vigilant. We have to keep on top of this virus. But the decision on close contacts represents a balance in terms of the pressures on supply chains in particular and on the health service and other essential services but also the progress we’re making in relation to vaccination.”
Mr Martin said the 8pm closing time for pubs, restaurants and cinemas would be reviewed later this month.
The changes come as the number of deaths linked to the virus in the State since the pandemic began passed 6,000.
A further 83 coronavirus-related deaths were newly notified in the past week, taking the total recorded in the Republic to 6,035.
A further 20,909 confirmed Covid-19 cases were reported on Wednesday.
As of 8am, 1,055 Covid-19 patients are hospitalised, 92 of whom are in ICU.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said the measures announced on Wednesday were "more proportionate to the current level of infection and the impact it is having".
“In particular, while we are reducing the requirement to self-isolate and restrict movements for cases and close contacts respectively, we are strengthening guidance relating to mask wearing and reduced social contact for the full ten days following diagnosis or last known close contact,” he added.
Speaking during a post-Cabinet press conference Mr Martin rejected a suggestion that the high level of Covid-19 cases represented a failure of the Government’s plan for the winter.
He said: “I don’t accept that at all. It’s the opposite that is the case.”
Mr Martin said Omicron was a highly transmissible variant that was impacting countries around the globe and that people had responded “instinctively” to restrictions and measures put in place and changed behaviour.
“The key metrics in terms of mortality in terms of hospitalisation and admission to ICUs are such that we are managing this wave effectively.”
Mr Martin also said: “There is no comparison in terms of the levels of activity that are ongoing in the economy and across society, as compared to 12 months ago, when you had a far less transmissible variant.
“We’re not at Level Five [restrictions] notwithstanding the very high level of cases.”
He said 300,000 PCR tests were being carried out per week compared with 100,000-a-week at the same time last year.
Mr Martin also indicated there would be no change in policy in relation to the provision of free antigen tests.
Currently they are available to people under 40 who have Covid-19 symptoms as well as close contacts of cases in schools.
Opposition politicians have called for free antigen tests to be distributed more widely.
“Basically we’ve given out about 6.4 million free antigen tests to date ... which is a very significant number.
“I think a targeting approach in terms of close contacts, in terms of symptomatic and also in terms of creches and schools and so on, is working effectively. And that will continue to be the policy.”
On his way into Cabinet on Wednesday morning, Mr Martin said: “The peak hasn’t yet been reached, the public health authorities anticipate that we will reach the peak within the next week or two.
“One cannot be definitive or certain about that, we have to be very vigilant about Covid and about Omicron because over a thousand people are in hospital and one doesn’t go into hospital unless you’re sick.
“So we do understand that this is a very dangerous virus.”
He said the “best weapon we have” is to get vaccinated and to follow the public health guidelines.
Earlier, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan told Newstalk Breakfast that the changes on close contact rules would be of benefit to employers and to their staff and it had come about as a result of recommendations from the ECDC.
The system in the last few weeks had been “confusing”, he said, and this move would provide clarity.
However, Mr Ryan warned that the virus could not be "let rip". He said the number of patients with Covid in ICUs was "holding steady", and Ireland has the second-lowest death rate from Covid in Europe, "because the vaccine works". The metric of measurement had to be the number of hospitalisations not the number of cases, he added.
Earlier, professor of immunology at Dublin City University Christine Loscher expressed concern about a "blanket" easing of close contact requirements.
“I’m surprised there is a blanket change. It’s a little bit all or nothing,” Prof Loscher told Newstalk Breakfast.
Prof Loscher said she understood the need to change the rules with regard to the workplace, especially for essential services, but said she was concerned because the Omicron variant was much more transmissible and she would not like to see the change have an impact on case numbers.
Antigen tests would be crucial “if this is the way to go”, she said, and a test would need to be done every day.
Prof Loscher said there was not yet information on how many close contacts had turned into cases, what percentage and in what settings.
Every single public health decision to date had been made on the basis of scientific evidence, she said. “That does not seem to have happened here.”