Holohan warns against high social contacts with Christmas looming

Chief medical officer tells public to ‘dial’ back socialising to reduce spread of Covid-19

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan says it will be "a challenge" to get Covid-19 case numbers down from their current high levels to as low as possible before Christmas.

In a fresh plea to people to reduce their social contacts to stem the spread of the disease, Dr Holohan warned that with the busy Christmas social season approaching it was “a very risky time” to be continuing with such high levels of socialisation when infection rates were so high.

Socialising was at the highest level seen in the entire pandemic across every age group and in every part of the country and every social setting, Dr Holohan told the weekly Covid-19 briefing.

“We need to dial that back,” he said.


The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) reported a further 3,174 daily cases, which was an estimate based on test results due to a technical issue with the case-reporting system that has since been rectified.

Dr Holohan warned that the “force of infection” was “simply too high” across the population with Covid-19 cases rising across all ages groups to 75 and particularly rapidly among those aged between 19 and 24.

However, he ruled out a "circuit-breaker" of new restrictions to reduce transmission rates, saying that Nphet was not contemplating "additional and wider measures" at this point.

Prof Philip Nolan, chair of Nphet's modelling group, said that it had not seen case counts running as high as they are currently, averaging 2,600 per day, since the third wave in January.

He cautioned that unless public actions bring infections down in the coming weeks, the country was “going to struggle to control this virus for months to come through our winter”.

Prof Nolan expressed concern that mortality rate was likely to increase because of the large number of infections recorded over the past two weeks.

“Running along at 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 cases a day every day puts a very substantial cohort of people at risk day after day after day,” he said.

He said there had been an “unrelenting” increase in the number of positive Covid-19 tests and that the high number of hospital admissions, running at an average of 60 a day, was “of concern”.

Nphet modelling estimates that there will be be 35 hospital admissions for every 1,000 cases.

Pointing to an uncertain period ahead, Prof Nolan said that it was very hard to say when cases would peak and start to decline, as waning vaccine immunity has not been built into models yet.

“Things can go rapidly badly wrong from a high force of infection,” he said.

For the first time since a majority of the population has been vaccinated, Nphet has asked people to cut down on their social contacts and “ration” their “discretionary activities”.

Social contacts

Prof Nolan said that reducing social contacts by 30 to 40 per cent and being more careful in each of those contacts would help reduce transmission.

"If you are planning to see 15 to 20 people next week, it would be much better to see eight, nine or 10," he told the Nphet briefing at the Department of Health.

Dr Holohan urged people to make a personal risk assessment on their activities.

Going to a nightclub was “a high-risk activity” and that going to clubs every second or third night amounted to “too high a level of mixing” when once every 10 days or every fortnight was safer based on Covid’s incubation period, he said.

He noted that one in five of the 18- to 30-year-old age group has yet to be vaccinated.

Dr Holohan urged businesses to do more on public-health measures, noting that market research company Amarach had found that one in four people visiting hospitality last weekend did not have their Covid-19 vaccination cert checked.

Prof Martin Cormican, clinical lead on infection control at the Health Service Executive, said that it was keeping an open mind on introducing antigen testing in schools and that if the evidence showed it kept children safer, then it would accept that, even though testing might be "unpleasant" for children.

Prof Nolan pointed to the protective benefit of vaccines, saying that if it was turned off overnight there would be more than 10,000 daily and this would quadruple to an “unimaginable number” within days, with infected people each infecting between five and eight others.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent