Q&A: What are the new Covid rules and what is the logic behind them?

Government has relaxed testing and isolation rules for Covid cases and close contacts

The milder impact of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 on infected people and hospitals has led the Government to relax the rules on isolation and testing to allow more people return to work and to protect essential public services. Here is a guide to what you need to know about the new rules in this regard.

What are the changes?

The Government has agreed to loosen rules on Covid-19 testing, self-isolation guidance for those who test positive for the virus, and restrictions for people who are close contacts of Covid cases.

What is the biggest change?

The most significant difference is on fully vaccinated close contacts who have received their vaccine booster and are not displaying any symptoms of Covid-19. They no longer have to restrict their movements for five days. Instead, they are being asked to wear a medical (typically blue) or higher-grade face mask (the typically white FFP2/N95 variety) for 10 days when in crowded or enclosed spaces and to take regular antigen tests over seven days, with the last test on day seven. Close contacts who have not been boosted only have to restrict their movements for seven days, instead of the 10 previously recommended.

Close contacts of any age who have themselves recovered following Covid-19 detected by a PCR or antigen test since December 1st are not required to restrict movements or test if asymptomatic.

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What effect will these particular changes have?

This new arrangement will likely affect tens of thousands of people who are stuck at home and cannot go to work, ensuring – most importantly – that essential services can continue.

What is happening with testing?

Previously if people between the ages of four and 39 with symptoms tested positive for Covid-19 on an antigen test, they had to get an official PCR test through the HSE to confirm their infection. From now on, anyone who has a positive antigen test no longer needs to go for a PCR test. They can register their positive antigen test result on and upload their close contacts to the HSE’s system and antigen tests will then be sent out to their close contacts.

What is changing in relation to the rules for those who test positive for Covid-19?

There has been no change in the rule for people who have received the vaccine boosters: if these people test positive, they still have to self-isolate for seven days. For those who have not received a booster dose who test positive, however, they only have to self-isolate for seven days, instead of the 10 previously. In other words, everyone who tests positive for Covid-19 will only have to isolate for seven days. People should only exit self-isolation after seven days if their symptoms have substantially or fully resolved for the final two of those seven days.

Are any additional precautions being recommended?

For 10 days including any isolation periods, both confirmed Covid-19 cases and close contacts are advised to limit close contacts with people outside their household, especially in crowded, enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces; to wear a face mask in crowded spaces; to take an antigen test before entering crowded spaces or prior to close contact with others outside their household, and to work from home if possible.

Everyone over 12 who tests positive should wear a medical grade or FFP2 face mask for 10 days under this new advice and children aged between nine and 12 who test positive should wear a well-fitted mask for 10 days. Any close contacts over 12 who have not been boosted should wear an FFP2 or medical grade mask for 10 days. The State's chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has said that booster vaccines for children aged 12 to 15 will be considered shortly.

When will these changes come into effect?

From midnight on Thursday, so most people will not enjoy the benefit of these changes until they wake up on Friday morning.

Will the State be sending out antigen tests and medical and respirator masks for free?

The HSE is already sending out antigen tests to close contacts but the Government is not planning on providing them to the general public. There are no plans to distribute free medical-grade masks or the more expensive FFP2 respirator masks. Opposition parties have called on the Government to cover the cost of both antigen tests and medical grade masks for all households.

What has led to these rule changes?

New EU advice from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) issued last weekend paved the way, with a change in guidance for close contacts. The ECDC said that if any close contacts had a negative PCR or antigen test, they may not need to restrict their movements so long as they self-monitor for symptoms, continue to wear a mask and stay away from vulnerable groups. Dr Holohan told Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly in a letter on Tuesday that the updated guidance from the ECDC, considering the rapid spread of Omicron in Europe, aimed to provide options on quarantine, particularly when countries face "high or extreme pressure" on health systems and other essential services.

What is the motivation to make the changes now when daily case numbers are still so high?

The vast number of confirmed Omicron infections since Christmas has affected two or three times this number because of people being identified as close contacts of those cases. Given that Dr Holohan estimated that up to 500,000 people were likely to have been infected last week, this would mean well in excess of 1 million additional people may be forced to stay at home, based on the average number of close contacts. The Government had expressed concern that the rules on close contacts were causing major difficulties for businesses and public services. An estimated 15,000 HSE staff are currently out on Covid-related leave, putting hospitals under severe pressure.

Is it premature given the high number of cases?

Some have suggested that it is, particularly when the seven-day average of new daily cases is still north of 20,000. Dublin City University immunology professor Christine Loscher expressed surprise at the "blanket" easing of close contact requirements amid concerns over how much more transmissible the Omicron variant was and how little was known about what percentage of close contacts become infected.

How do the changes compare with what is happening in other countries?

In the UK, since Tuesday, most people with a positive antigen test have not been required to take a confirmatory PCR test to confirm they have Covid-19. Last week, Germany reduced self-isolation for positive Covid-19 cases and close contacts from 14 days to 10, with the option to end their isolation period on day seven with a Covid-19 test. The US has gone further, reducing the amount of time that confirmed Covid-19 cases must isolate to five days last month.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

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