Chief medical officer Tony Holohan has raised the prospect of a further easing of coronavirus restrictions, saying such steps "may not be far away" as vaccinations intensify in coming weeks.
“What are the things we would move on and what are the things that we think might need to stay place? Those are the things we’re giving consideration to,” Dr Holohan told reporters at the Department of Health.
The possibility of a further easing of restrictions reflects confidence in the advancing vaccination programme and it comes despite rapidly rising Covid-19 incidence among young adults aged 19-24, who have yet to receive inoculations.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) reported 1,408 new Covid-19 infections on Wednesday, with 152 patients in hospital, 26 of them in intensive care. The median age was 24 and more than 90 per cent of all current cases were caused by the more transmissible Delta variant.
Nine Covid-19 related deaths have been reported since the last Nphet briefing on July 21st, bringing the total to 5,035, according to deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn.
The rise in infection rates follows a marked drop in April and May and further declines to a low of some 300 new cases per day in late June. But Nphet said incidence was clearly increasing again, with the seven-day average rising this week to 1,248 from 1,202 one week ago and 613 a fortnight ago.
"The vast majority of cases since mid-May are in unvaccinated people most of them young," said Prof Philip Nolan, chairman of Nphet's epidemiological modelling group. "The short-term trajectory does remain uncertain and a lot depends on what we do in moderating our level of social contact."
However, Dr Holohan said the high levels of vaccine uptake gave reasons for optimism and went to say officials were examining what criteria should be met before easing some of the remaining restrictions.
Nphet will consider the matter next week and any recommendations would be made “at some point after that” to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.
“In broad terms given the progress we’re making in vaccination notwithstanding where we are at in terms of the disease we might in coming weeks be in a situation where we’re able to . . . move away from some of the restrictions,” Dr Holohan said.
“We’re looking at essentially what are the kind of criteria that need to be satisfied that would enable us to advise when we think it’s appropriate and safe [to ease some measures]. It’s more about achieving those criteria rather than a specific time period or a date. But if we keep progress going in terms of vaccination that may not be far away.”
After a Government decision on Tuesday, children aged 12 and above now set to be included in the next phase of vaccinations.
Prof Karina Butler, chairwoman of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, said it was "very reasonable" for parents to pause and ask whether they needed to have their children vaccinated.
“We felt that the benefits of vaccination were better, exceeded any risks associated with the vaccine for children. So in that context we recommended that it should be offered to all children in that age group. We would strongly recommend that parents of children that might have an underlying condition should avail of it at their earliest opportunity,” she said.
Reassuringly for parents, Covid-19 was a mild disease in children and most children would be asymptomatic or only have mild illness.
However, she said a “low” number of children would suffer severe disease and would be admitted to hospital. The “very few” who might require intensive care would generally have underlying conditions such as chronic lung disease or a chronic neurological condition.
Dr Glynn said parents should be on alert for misinformation on social media amid preparations to inocuate children.
“We’ve seen over the last number of years that childhood vaccinations and childhood immunisation programmes have been a particular target for misinformation, disinformation,” Dr Glynn said.
“It’s important that parents prime themselves now and are aware that they will be targeted over the next two to three weeks in particular, that there will be a lot of misinformation circulating particularly through social media and to be aware of that, not to assume that everything you see on social media is accurate.”