The Minister for Health has defended the Government’s decision not to reimpose mandatory mask wearing in response to a recent surge in Covid-19 cases.
Stephen Donnelly said the original pandemic powers were draconian and appropriate for a time of emergency, but that the State now has to move towards living with the disease.
However, the Minister encouraged members of the public to wear masks on public transport, in crowded places and in healthcare settings.
Speaking on RTÉ radio's News at One, Mr Donnelly said the B.A.2 variant of Covid-19 accounted for 95 per cent of cases and that more than masks would be needed to combat such a highly contagious strain.
“Everything helps,” he said of mask wearing.
The advice from the chief medical officer was in line with the decision not to reintroduce mask related curbs, he said.
When asked if he was prepared to publish that advice, he said he was as he felt that the more advice there was “out there” the better.
Asked if he was hopeful that the peak of the latest surge had passed, the Minister expressed “cautious optimism” given the five-day rolling average of cases was falling. Once the peak had passed in other countries there was a rapid decline in case numbers, he added.
The number of people in hospital with the disease fell by 63 on Friday morning to 1,472. This included 59 people in intensive care units (ICUs), an increase of one in 24 hours.
A further 5,750 positive PCR tests were reported by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre on Friday afternoon and it said 5,089 people had registered a positive antigen test through the HSE portal on Thursday.
Elsewhere, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he did not expected "significant changes" to the advice on the seven-day isolation period for people with Covid-19.
He is just emerging from completing a week of isolation himself after testing positive for the virus and was speaking at the opening of the Himalayan Hills habitat at Dublin Zoo. The mooted change to the isolation period was considered at a Cabinet Covid-19 sub committee meeting on Thursday.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan is examining the current guidance including whether the isolation period could be reduced.
Mr Varadkar said Dr Holohan would provide advice to Government on the matter in the next couple of weeks.
“I don’t anticipate a significant change, quite frankly, because this is down to the science and the incubation period of virus is what it is and the infectious period is what it is,” the Tánaiste said. “But advice which we’re going to emphasise more and more is that for people who are under 55 and medically well, you don’t need to get a test actually.
“What you need to do if you have symptoms is to isolation and that once your symptoms are gone for two days then you’re free to return to relatively normal life.”
He said people aged over 55 or those with a medical condition should get tested.
Past the peak
Mr Varadkar told RTÉ’s Prime Time on Thursday that it was Dr Holohan’s view that “we are close to or past” the peak of the second Omicron wave.
Speaking on Friday, the Tánaiste said there is reassurance that, two days in a row, the number of people in hospital with Covid has fallen and the number in ICU is staying between 40 and 60.
Mr Varadkar said the advice from the CMO is that Ireland no longer needs legally binding restrictions like those related to masks.
“We’re still encouraging people - isolate if you’re sick, wear a mask in the appropriate settings and please get that booster that’s really important.”
He said 700,000 people who have not had their booster vaccination and encouraged them to get the jab to protect themselves and others.
Earlier, the Covid-19 lead with the Irish College of General Practitioners said a “cultural change” was needed in Irish society so it is considered “impolite” to go to work or school with what could be symptoms of the disease.
Dr Nuala O’Connor said it was important to protect the vulnerable in society and that anyone experiencing symptoms should stay at home and wear a mask if they needed to go out.
She told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland there were indications that the current wave had peaked.
When asked about possibly reducing the number of isolation days to seven, Dr O’Connor said there was evidence about fewer days of isolation being sufficient and such a change had already been introduced in other jurisdictions.
She said she did not think there would be any announcement about this happening in the State in the near future.
She said the focus should remain on staying at home if experiencing symptoms and getting booster vaccines. Ireland had a good record on vaccination, but only 75 per cent of the population had received a booster and 50 per cent of seriously ill patients in ICU had not been vaccinated, she added.
Any respiratory illness such as flu is an inconvenience and did not carry the risk of serious illness, hospitalisation or death, but there are always vulnerable people in the community who did not have the same level of protection.
“As a society we need to protect these people” she said. “Moving forward it is important to have a culture change.”