Ireland’s Covid figures are decreasing due to population immunity, expert says

Prof Noel McCarthy is ‘95% certain’ variant more dangerous than Omicron will not appear

Trinity College Dublin professor of population health medicine Noel McCarthy said population immunity explains why the State's Covid-19 figures are going down despite the fact that people are mixing more.

He said he was “95 per cent certain” that a new, more transmissible and dangerous variant of Covid-19 than Omicron will not appear, and therefore there will be no more lockdowns.

His comments come as an additional 28,166 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in recent days, according to the latest figures released by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.

This total includes new case figures for Saturday, Sunday and Monday, with the numbers continuing to trend downwards in this regard.


On Saturday 10,977 new cases were reported, including 6,260 cases confirmed through a PCR test and 4,717 through an antigen test.

On Sunday the figure was 8,736, including 4,933 cases confirmed through a PCR test and 3,803 through an antigen test.

Monday’s figure was 8,453, including 3,975 cases confirmed through a PCR test and 4,478 through an antigen test.

As of 8am on Monday there were 643 people in hospital with Covid-19, of whom 76 are in ICU.

Milder infections

Prof McCarthy said the pattern of milder infections which has been a feature of currently dominant Omicron variant is likely to continue for the foreseeable future and will not pose a serious threat to public health.

“My expectations coming out of the pandemic is that we won’t have the experiences we have had of the last two years again,” he said.

“We may have other experiences of immunity waning and outbreaks waiting to happen and have to go in with mop-up vaccinations.

“We may end up like Omicron with a lot of disease but not much severe disease. We will be seeing rapid vaccination rather than the closure of society. Society can run its normal functions.”

Prof McCarthy predicted that a pilot seroprevalence study in the State that will begin in mid-February will show “stellar levels of immunity” in the population.

This will be as a result of vaccination and prior infections with Covid-19.

Prof McCarthy said society would have to be “incredibly unlucky” for another variant to come along that would be as transmissible as Omicron and as virulent as Delta.

Public transport

Meanwhile, commuter traffic and public transport use remain well below pre-pandemic levels despite the general reopening of society.

While Covid-19 restrictions on returning to the office have been removed, the figures would suggest that many people are continuing to work from home.

Early figures suggest that daily passenger numbers on public transport remain down 40 per cent on early 2020.

The National Transport Authority (NTA), the co-ordinating body for public transport in the State, estimates that before the pandemic it carried 1 million passengers per day. That figure is down to 600,000.

Those figures include passengers on Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann, Go Ahead, Luas, Irish Rail and local link services.

However, weekends are much busier, averaging between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

Bus Éireann spokeswoman Elizabeth Headon said regional city services are "touching 100 per cent" of pre-pandemic passenger levels in Galway, Limerick and Athlone.

The regional rural bus services are at 85 per cent of their pre-pandemic levels and rising, she added, but commuter services to and from the greater Dublin area are not as strong.

In the last week of February 2020, before restrictions were imposed, Dublin Bus was carrying an average of 478,626 passengers a day. That figure for the first full week after restrictions were lifted on January 22nd was 319,411, a decrease of one-third on pre-pandemic levels.

In terms of passenger numbers, Dublin Bus and Go Ahead Ireland commuter bus services together are operating at two-thirds of what they were before the pandemic.

Irish Rail was carrying 143,625 passengers on Monday, March 3rd, 2020, before the pandemic was declared. The equivalent figure on Monday, January 31st, was 90,366.

Passenger numbers on Luas services are 60 per cent of what they were pre-pandemic.

Traffic volumes

Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) figures show traffic volumes growing notably since the lifting of restrictions last month.

Traffic was up by 5 per cent on February 4th on the M4 between Celbridge and Maynooth and on the M1 between the M50 and Dublin Airport in comparison with the previous Friday, January 28th. It was up by 3 per cent on the M50 between the Navan Road and Galway Road junctions and by 1 per cent on the N40 Cork ring road.

However, generally traffic volumes were down between 11 and 17 per cent on the same day in February 2020 before the first pandemic restrictions came into place.

Traffic on the N6 Bóthar na dTreabh main road into Galway city is down by 23 per cent on 2020, the N40 into Cork is down by 17 per cent, the M1 into Dublin 14 per cent and the N7 at Citywest is down by 12 per cent.

Traffic on peripheral roads monitored by TII in counties Donegal, Leitrim and Cavan is now approaching pre-pandemic levels.

HGV traffic on Irish roads is back to pre-pandemic levels.

TII spokesman Sean O’Neill said figures would appear to indicate that car traffic volumes generally are returning to pre-pandemic levels, but many people are still opting to work from home.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times