Grave concerns over the threat posed by the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 have led the Government to introduce new restrictions to reduce social contacts over Christmas on the recommendation of public health advisers.
What restrictions are being introduced?
All restaurants and bars, excluding takeaway and delivery services, must close at 8pm and there should also be no indoor events after 8pm on Monday. For any indoor events taking place earlier, attendance has to be capped at 50 per cent of the venue’s capacity or 1,000 people, whichever is lower. Outdoor events will be limited to 50 per cent of venue capacity or 5,000 people, whichever is lower. This means early closing times for hospitality and live events, cinemas and theatres. Religious events such as Midnight Mass are exempt from the 8pm closure rule.
Are there other exemptions to the restrictions?
Yes, hotel bars and restaurants can stay open after 8pm but only for overnight guests.
What about wedding receptions?
These can take place after 8pm until midnight but they will be limited to 100 guests.
How long will these restrictions remain in place?
They come into force on Monday morning and are due to continue until January 30th, but there will be a review on January 11th.
What about households mixing over Christmas?
There have been no changes on this so existing arrangements apply: three households can gather in the home of a fourth. This means families can meet in homes over Christmas.
Are there any changes to close contacts?
Yes. Anyone who has received a Covid-19 vaccine booster at least one week ago must restrict their movement for five days and take three antigen tests. Those who have yet to receive a booster must restrict their movements for 10 days. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said that the Health Service Executive will consider the best testing requirements for people falling into this category.
Are there any changes to travel requirements?
From now on, all people arriving into the country from overseas will be required to have an antigen or PCR Covid-19 test with a negative result, depending on their vaccination or recovery status. All passengers arriving into the country will be advised to conduct antigen testing every day for five consecutive days, starting on the day that they arrive into the country.
Are all these restrictions in line with public health advice?
Not quite. The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) advised the Government to introduce an earlier curfew at 5pm – three hours before the time the Government picked.
Why is the Government making these changes?
It is all down to the Omicron variant. While booster doses of the Covid-19 vaccine appear to offer protection against this variant, not enough people have these doses yet, so the Government has been advised to reduce social contacts to prevent the spread of the virus. The Taoiseach said that Omicron now accounts for 35 per cent of cases – up from 1 per cent last week – and warned that there will be a “massive rise” which, if left unchecked, poses a “very significant threat” to hospitals and intensive care units, and a threat to the health system and the economy.
Why is this a concern?
It is not yet clear how bad this variant could be. It is certainly more transmissible and is spreading between two and four times faster than the Delta variant, the current version of the virus that is dominant in the country. Prof Philip Nolan, the chair of Nphet's modelling group, said the new variant could be dominant here within the next four to five days.
But new daily cases are not increasing?
The Omicron wave has yet to take off. The benefits of restrictions to curb the Delta wave are still being seen with case numbers remaining suppressed but Nphet has said early signs of rising infections in Dublin and among young people point to the emerging impact of Omicron.
What could this mean for cases?
Prof Nolan’s modelling suggests that there could be between 8,000 and 20,000 new cases a day, depending on the level of social mixing over Christmas. An optimistic model suggested that Covid-19 hospital numbers could peak at between 650 and 1,000 people in early January with between 150 and 250 people requiring critical care. Under a pessimistic scenario, more than 2,000 people could be hospitalised, including more than 200 people in hospital ICUs.