Hospitals are preparing for a surge in Covid-19 cases, and may have to begin deferring some categories of care, the Health Service Executive (HSE) has said.
The spread of the virus has accelerated with 994 new cases confirmed last night (Thursday), around two weeks earlier than when 1,000 cases a day were expected to occur.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar both urged caution as the highly-transmissible Delta variant fuelled the rise in cases.
However, the Government’s plan to allow the resumption of indoor hospitality is proceeding in the belief that the growing number of people who have been fully vaccinated will mitigate the impact of increased social mixing.
The stark warning about the faster than expected spread of the virus came at a HSE briefing.
Chief executive Paul Reid said the track and tracing service was already "in surge" and doing approximately 20,000 tests a day.
He said the surge in cases has not happened yet, but he added: “it is certainly high risk at the moment”, and he urged people to take precautions.
Mr Reid emphasised that those who were fully vaccinated were “very well protected against hospitalisation”, with higher than 90 per cent protection.
He also said approximately 5 per cent of the overall cases in recent days involved people who were fully vaccinated.
The HSE’s chief operations officer, Anne O’Connor, said hospitals were making preparations and may have to shortly begin deferring some categories of care if the numbers hospitalised continues to rise.
There were 80 patients being treated for the virus in hospital on Thursday, up from 73 a day earlier.
The HSE said it was down to 140 available hospital beds when it would expect to have around 400.
Northern Ireland reported more than 1,000 new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday for the first time since January, with the Minister for Health there, Robin Swann, saying the spike was "cause for concern".
The Taoiseach said the country was in a “different phase of the pandemic”, and the next six weeks to two months would be “challenging” because of Delta.
As work continued on the guidelines for reopening indoor hospitality services Mr Martin said people should "exercise their own judgement" when deciding whether to bring their children to eat inside in restaurants.
His remarks come after the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, said it was safer not to bring children out for indoor dining.
Children under 18 in a “family bubble” will be allowed dine inside despite not being vaccinated. Mr Martin said Ministers had made the decision to permit this, adding that the chief medical officer offers public health advice but the Government has broader issues to consider.
Dr Holohan reiterated his message in a statement last night. He said: “People who are unvaccinated, including children, should continue to avoid high-risk, uncontrolled indoor settings. That includes indoor hospitality.
“I know this is a difficult message for people, particularly parents of unvaccinated children to hear, but if we stick with the public health measures we can limit transmission of this disease and protect others.”
He added: “We continue to keep all of the public health guidance under review. That includes all elements of the further reopening of society and looking forward to September and a return to education for students.”
In the Dáil, Mr Varadkar appealed to unvaccinated people to avoid socialising indoors as they were at “very high risk”, and if they do not take care it could “overwhelm our hospitals”.
Later he said indoor hospitality would not reopen until Monday, July 26th, citing the time it would take for legislation underpinning the move to be fully enacted and dashing industry hopes that they could be back in business days earlier.
However, he said rising case numbers would not derail the plans even though Ministers had not anticipated cases would reach the 1,000 cases a day threshold so quickly.
He said there were still reasons for optimism, pointing to how Scotland had seen a similar wave of Delta cases, peaking at 3,500 a day but falling back to 2,000 a day. "If that is the course we are following, that is manageable. It is not a good place to be in, but it is manageable."
Sources meanwhile said many of the Fáilte Ireland guidelines for indoor dining like a maximum of six people at tables at least a metre apart, and the requirement to wear face coverings when walking around, will remain the same.
However the possible scrapping of the one hour 45 minute time limit for dining was said to be under consideration albeit further consultations are to take place with health officials.