Return to mandatory mask-wearing would not change trajectory of Covid wave, Taoiseach says

Micheál Martin acknowledges pressure on hospitals but says BA.2 is too transmissible

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he does not believe a mandatory return to mask-wearing indoors would change the trajectory of the latest Covid-19 wave.

His comments came after the Irish Association for Emergency Medicine and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation called on the Government to revisit restrictions such as masks and working from home, as the health service struggles to cope with a surge in infections.

In an interview on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, Mr Martin said the view from public health was the BA.2 variant was so transmissible it was almost impossible to stop it.

Hospital Report

He said he had been in touch with the Health Service Executive and the chief medical officer and was following public health advice.


He said the BA.2 variant – which accounts for almost 95 per cent of Covid-19 cases in Ireland – was more transmissible than previous variants but "does not appear to be damaging public health to the same extent".

He said it was not causing greater admissions to hospital or intensive care (ICU), but he acknowledged it was putting “enormous pressure” on the health system as Covid cases “demand isolation treatment”.

However, the Taoiseach insisted the return of restrictions was not justified, saying: “I accept fully the problems [in the health service] but suggesting if we just brought in masks that could change all of that, it just doesn’t cover it.”

Varadkar bulletin

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said a new body to replace the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) could be established as early as next week.

“It will be a group of people who you’ll be familiar with in terms of people from the Department of Health and the HSE but also some outside expertise,” he said. “But it’s not going to be a new Nphet, it’s going to be a Covid advisory group.”

On Thursday, the Cabinet sub-committee on health met with State chief medical officer Tony Holohan and were told "we are close to or even past the peak of this second Omicron wave".

“We know that because the five-day incidence of the virus is now falling, that’s in community settings and hospital settings, and the positivity rate is now falling as well,” Mr Varadkar said in an interview on Prime Time. “Even the numbers in hospital are stabilising too.”

“The pandemic is not over but the public health emergency is.”

The seven-day isolation period is up for review but Mr Varadkar said he did not expect any change to that.

The Government is also expecting advice from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee around the use of fourth vaccine doses.

“As things go we believe that any future waves will be manageable without the need for legally binding restrictions.”

On Thursday, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre was notified of 5,252 PCR-confirmed cases of Covid-19. In addition, on Wednesday, 6,489 people registered a positive antigen test through the HSE’s online portal. According to the HSE Covid hub, 40 per cent of those getting tested are returning positive results. There were 13 virus-related deaths notified on Thursday.

The number of patients with the virus in hospital on Thursday morning was 1,535, down from 1,610 the previous day. The number of virus patients in ICU was 58, up nine from Wednesday.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation said this month has been the worst March for overcrowding since it began counting trolleys in 2006, with 11,001 patients without a bed. There were 29,506 patients on trolleys throughout quarter one of 2022, it said.

Emergency departments ‘unsafe’

Earlier on Thursday, the president of the Irish Association for Emergency Medicine Fergal Hickey warned the healthcare service was not coping with the latest wave of Covid-19 and said steps must be taken to "flatten the curve".

Dr Hickey, who is also an emergency medicine consultant at Sligo General Hospital, told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland the situation in emergency departments was “unsafe and intolerable”.

“We know, for example, that if you have to wait for more than five hours for a decision to admit in an emergency department, an additional one in 82 patients will die as a direct result,” he said.

“We know that if you are in an emergency department that is overcrowded there is an increase in 30-day mortality from all causes for all patients. They are things which are potentially preventable by some action.”

Dr Hickey said hospitals were not looking for a return to draconian restrictions, but “relatively simple interventions”, which he said could mean the difference for individual patients between “life and death”.

“We don’t see politicians, we don’t see senior figures within the HSE visiting emergency departments at the moment because they would be afraid of what they might find,” he said.

There are signs the current wave may be peaking. The combined number of positive results from PCR and antigen tests each day, though an underestimate of the real number of infections, has started to decline. Hospitalisations are rising more slowly and ICU numbers are holding steady.

Mr Martin confirmed on Wednesday that pandemic emergency powers to restrict travel and stop public gatherings, which were signed into law in March 2020, were due to expire at midnight on Thursday.