A further three deaths and 1,167 new Covid-19 cases have been reported in the Republic, while the North recorded five deaths and 1,039 new cases.
There has now been a total of 1,868 Covid-19-related deaths in Ireland and the number of confirmed cases now stands at 53,422.
Of the cases notified today 538 are men and 627 are women, while 64 per cent are under 45 years of age. The median age is 33.
The highest number of new cases was in Dublin, with 263. Meath recorded 142 cases, while there were 137 in Cork and 86 in Cavan. The remaining 539 cases are spread across all remaining counties.
A total of 314 Covid-19 patients are hospitalised, of which 34 are in ICU. In the past 24 hours, there were 27 additional hospitalisations.
Dr Tony Holohan, chief medical officer, said on Wednesday evening: “The behaviour of every individual is the most effective defence we have against the spread of Covid-19.
“Everyone needs to stay at home, other than for essential reasons. Follow the public health advice and treat everyone that you come into contact with as though they are a close contact of someone with Covid-19 - keep your distance, avoid meeting others.
“We are facing a big challenge, but we have faced this challenge before, and that means we know how to suppress this virus, by following the public health advice in everything we do.”
Earlier, it emerged that the Government fears public health officials will seek another another lockdown in January after restrictions are eased for a few weeks over Christmas, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions.
National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) members suggested infections would rise during December once restrictions were eased, making a return to Level 5 necessary in the new year. This was one scenario discussed at Saturday’s meeting between the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, ministers and Nphet officials.
The suggestions is at odds with the exit strategy agreed within Government, which envisages the lifting of Level 5 measures if the reproduction number of Covid-19 drops below 1 and cases are falling “consistently”.
Ministers hope it may be possible to move down to Level 4 restrictions earlier than planned in the six-week lockdown due to begin at midnight on Wednesday.
A regional or local approach may also be taken, so that individual counties may be able to escape lockdown if their figures improve, one Government source said.
The reproduction number (or “R0”) is a measure of how widely a virus is being transmitted. An R0 of greater than one means the disease is spreading more; one less than one means the epidemic is dying out.
National Public Health Emergency Team official Prof Philip Nolan said on Monday the reproduction number would have to be reduced to 0.5, and kept there for six weeks, for the lockdown to be a success. Even with this approach, officials expected 200 cases a day by the end of December.
Speaking on RTÉ radio on Wednesday, Prof Nolan said a further lockdown in the New Year could not be ruled out.
“A lot depends on how people are behaving; I don’t like using the word ‘behaving’ but it’s the only way to express it. People realise there’s a problem now.”
He said Taoiseach Micheál Martin was right when he spoke about the matter in the Dáil on Tuesday.
“It’s important to be honest with people. If, following December and January, we find levels of cases rising and in particular rising quickly we may need to intervene again.
“If we intervene early that intervention can be shorter but the amount of time that we buy ourselves and how long that might happen really depends on our individual behaviours and how strong our public health departments are.”
Answering questions in the Dáil, Mr Martin confirmed the issue of a return to restrictions in January had been discussed with public health officials.
“Nphet informed us on Saturday that if we work with this for six weeks, we can get to a position, hopefully by the beginning of December, where we can reopen but that, in the new year, we might have to consider more restrictions again to keep control of the virus until we get hold of a vaccine,” he said.
Mr Martin also told TDs: “I foresee periods of high-level restrictions followed by low-level restrictions and, if necessary, followed by high-level restrictions again if the virus spreads during the reopening phase.”
A return to Level 5 restrictions would depend on how events unfold and how people behave in the coming weeks and months, especially over Christmas, when increased socialising is likely. If a rise in cases follows the relaxation of lockdown, it is thought likely that Nphet would recommend measures in early January, based on the premise that acting earlier would mean a shorter period of lockdown.
A further 13 deaths of people with Covid-19 were reported by the National Public Health Emergency Team yesterday, the highest daily number since late May. Nphet also reported a further 1,269 confirmed cases of the disease.
The 14-day incidence is now at a record 279 cases per 100,000 people; Cavan has the highest county incidence, at 909.7.
People should stay at home over the next six weeks of Level 5 restrictions “as much as possible”, unless they have an exceptional reason not to do so, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said. He described a recent increase in cases among over 65-year-olds as “worrying”.
It was “really important” to drive cases “as low as possible” during the Level 5 restriction period, though achieving “zero Covid” was not realistic, Dr Holohan told the briefing.
Reducing the R0 to about 0.5 would allow for a “more controlled experience” with lower levels of infection. However, “if we’re not on track, we’ll have to consider what that means”.
“Yes people are tired, yes people are frustrated, yes buy-in is a challenge yes, some of the measures are different from the first time around, but none of that is a reason to believe we can’t achieve this if we all pull together,” he said.