The Government should prepare a “plan B” of tighter restrictions before Christmas to prevent hospitals being overrun amid fears about the impact of the Omicron wave, experts have warned.
Specialists from the fields of public health, medicine and science expressed concerns about the impact on the healthcare system from a predicted increase in Covid-19 cases as the Government’s public health advisers said the more infectious strain was now the dominant variant in the State.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) said the new variant had been detected in 52 per cent of reported cases. The State's chief medical officer, Tony Holohan, said it took less than two weeks for Omicron to become dominant, showing "just how transmissible this variant is".
Ruairí Brugha, a public health professor at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, said that lockdown measures, including pub and restaurant closures and cancellation of public events, would need to start before Christmas and last four to eight weeks to “flatten the curve” of inevitable Omicron cases and relieve health workers.
Prof Anthony Staines, head of health systems at Dublin City University, said the country was in an "emergency-brake situation" requiring an eight-week lockdown to reduce infections.
“There is no good way out of this,” he said.
Catherine Motherway, head of University Hospital Limerick's intensive care unit, raised fears that if the new variant was milder but infected more people, it could put the same pressure on a health system that was already treating Covid-19 patients in one-third of its ICU beds.
“If we cannot control it by this particular set of restrictions, I would hope that our politicians will make hard and unpopular decisions,” she said.
Dublin-based GP Ray Walley, associate professor of general practice at UCD, said the current restrictions were "appropriate" but that the Government should be ready to react "very quickly" before Christmas if needed to avoid the health system being "more over-burdened".
Vaccine specialist Anne Moore of UCC's school of biochemistry said the Government needed to be much more cautious in its planning in case Omicron caused the same level of severe illness as the Delta variant when it was three times more infectious.
“If that happens, I think we are in a very bad place again,” she said.
A new 8pm curfew for pubs, restaurants and other indoor public settings comes into effect on Monday.
The Government ruled out plans for further Covid-19 restrictions before the end of the year but said that there were no guarantees about the future trajectory of the disease.
The Government plans to unveil enhanced pandemic financial supports this week that will be offered to businesses forced to close early because of new coronavirus restrictions.
The total number of Covid cases reported over the weekend was 12,457 – a 33 per cent rise on the previous weekend’s figure.
Nationwide efforts to protect against Omicron were stepped up over the weekend as the Covid-19 vaccine booster programme opened to people in their 40s on Sunday, drawing hundreds of people to queue for third doses at vaccination centres around the country.
Under the new rules taking effect from Monday, attendance at indoor events has to be capped at 50 per cent of the venue’s capacity or 1,000 people, whichever is lower. Outdoor events will be limited to 50 per cent of venue capacity or 5,000 people, whichever is lower.
Wedding receptions can take place after 8pm until midnight but they will be limited to 100 guests. Religious events such as Midnight Mass are exempt from the 8pm closure rule.