Taoiseach Micheál Martin has spoken of a ‘sense of inevitability about the progress of the Delta variant’ that will have ‘implications for the type of restrictions that one would impose’.
He was speaking ahead of a summit of EU leaders at which the 27 member states discussed the spread of the more infectious Delta variant which threatens a surge in infections among unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people.
The variant is expected to become the dominant strain across Europe, which could have implications for restrictions, Mr Martin said.
“There is a sense of inevitability about the progress of the Delta variant in general, and that then clearly has implications for the type of restrictions that one would impose,” Mr Martin said.
The Government is examining ways to speed up vaccination, apart from shortening the interval between AstraZeneca doses, to cover more of the population, the Taoiseach said.
“We will continue to explore other avenues to if we can speed up the vaccine program because it’s the vaccines will give the protection that’s very clear from the data.”
Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan said the level of hospitalisations associated with Covid-19 will be the key metric when making decisions about further reopening next week, Mr Ryan also indicated his preference would be to stick with European-wide rules on travel, rather than diverge - even if public health officials advise against non-essential travel for unvaccinated people.
“The key metric right through this Covid is our hospital system and how it manages, and how it can cope, and saving lives,” the Green Party leader said on Thursday when asked what the key metrics would be when the Government is deciding about reopening society.
Alongside hospitalisations, he also suggested the prevalence of the disease in the wider population would be important.
“It is the level of hospitalisation, the numbers in ICU, the case incidence, they’re the key metrics,” he said. Mr Ryan, who was launching the first services under the redesigned bus network for Dublin, which will operate from Howth and Malahide on Sunday, said it was too early to say whether the Government would delay plans for indoor dining to reopen on July 5th.
“We do have to be cautious, we have to look at the numbers in the meantime, but the other analysis is that the vaccination scheme is really working, the scale of vaccinations in recent weeks has been phenomenal, there is real protection from that ,” he said.
He said the Government’s plan is to resume non-essential travel from July 19th, when the EU green cert comes into operation. Under the plan, those who are vaccinated, who have recovered from a recent Covid infection, or who have negative PCR tests will be allowed to undertake non-essential travel. However, Dr Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer and head of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), has previously indicated his view that travel should be linked to vaccination status.
“We’re part of a European Union, and we’ve agreed that we’re best following a European Union approach,” Mr Ryan said. While the Government will “obviously” listen to Nphet and the European Centre for Disease Control, he said “there is strength in following a common approach”.
“Travel involves another jurisdiction on every occasion when you’re leaving a country, and doing it in a uniform, common way makes real sense, it makes it predictable, it’s standardised, it makes it easier to manage rather than having different rules for different countries at different times. Much better to follow the European approach.”
Asked if he expected advice from Nphet on re-starting travel on July 19th next week, at the same time as it gives advice on reopening indoor dining and other activities on July 5th, he said he expects “their advice next week will be more likely in relation to the 5th of July”.
Meanwhile in joint conclusions, the 27 EU leaders welcomed progress on vaccination and recent declining infection numbers across the continent.
However, rising cases in Britain due to the more infectious Delta variant despite a high level of vaccination are fuelling fears that the progress may be short lived and that EU countries will be next to see a fresh surge.
The leaders stressed “the need to continue vaccination efforts and to be vigilant and coordinated with regards to developments, particularly the emergence and spread of variants”.
At the summit, the German Chancellor piled pressure on member states like Portugal to make travellers from Britain quarantine even if they have been vaccinated due to the dominance of the Delta variant in the UK.
Mediterranean member states have been keen to reopen due to the importance of their tourism industries, and several countries have already begun using Covid-19 EU certificates to ease travel.
This measure would ensure “the full return to free movement as soon as the public health situation allows,” the 27 agreed.
Arriving at the summit the Taoiseach said countries were likely to make different choices on travel and restrictions.
“There may be different member state responses to the Delta variant,” Mr Martin said. “I don’t see a dramatic change at European level in respect of the Delta variant.”
Earlier, a member of Nphet suggested she and many GPs favour a delay in the reopening schedule so that the country’s vaccination programme can be progressed before restrictions on socialising are eased.
Dr Mary Favier, Covid adviser for the Irish College of General Practitioners, told RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland there was a concern about the "uptick" in the numbers of cases involving the variant as the proposed date for that easing approaches.
“We need more time to vaccinate. The vaccination programme is working very well. Another two to three weeks would give us a million more doses which would make a really significant difference,” she said.
“At this stage it’s all about vaccinations in arms. It’s a very hard decision. People are worn and tired. I think the feeling on the ground, the feeling of many GPs is that vaccination saves lives.
“If two to three more weeks could prevent ever having our health service in the same circumstances we were in in January, of ever having that number of deaths or ever going into another lock down, then I think the sentiment out there would be that we delay very strategically.”
She cautioned that if the number of cases of the Delta variant continues to rise, difficult decisions will have to be made on the further easing of restrictions planned for July 5th with Nphet set to bring its meeting scheduled for next Thursday forward by a day in order to consider its advice to Government.
It will then be the Government that will make the decision about the date for the easing of restrictions for indoor facilities, she said, and it would be made using “many variables”.
She said if people were told delaying the easing of restrictions for a few weeks meant that we would avoid more lockdowns and increased pressure on the health system, the public would understand. “Social solidarity and the extraordinary community effort had gotten us this far.”
She said GPs were finding it difficult to determine exact numbers of the variant as people were now going directly to pop-up test centres and doctors could not access data because of the cyberattack on the Health Service Executive.
Previously when patients accessed testing through GPs they would be given advice on isolation and contacts via text message, she said, “but we can’t do that now.”
This was an issue of concern as the Delta variant was more contagious and there had been a change in public behaviour, she added.
Earlier, two doctors based in the northwest of Ireland on both sides of the Border said there was a growing number of Covid-19 cases in the area that appear to be of the Delta variant.
Dr Tom Black, who is based in Derry, told Morning Ireland: "We are seeing a lot of sick children and younger people, not older people. Half the cases in Northern Ireland are the Delta variant, we expect that to rise to 75 per cent in the next couple of weeks."
He said the number of cases in the Strabane and Derry area is three times higher than the rest of Northern Ireland.
Dr Black said the vaccination programme was holding up well and there were very few cases in people aged over 60 and very few hospitalisations.
However, he acknowledged that as general practitioners they were not certain that the cases they were seeing were of the Delta variant, but they were seeing more symptoms that were consistent with it.
The North's Public Health Agency said on Wednesday that as of the previous day there had been 612 confirmed or probable cases of the Delta variant in the North – more than twice the total the previous week.
On the other side of the Border in Co Donegal, Dr Denis McCauley said they too were seeing an "upswing" in upper respiratory infections among children, but that because of ongoing problems caused by the cyberattack on the HSE, they did not have full details.
What happened in Derry was usually replicated in Donegal, he said, adding that more cases will be seen in Donegal as the number of cases in Northern Ireland goes up.
Dr Black said pop-up clinics had been established around Derry to address “the gaps” among those aged 40 to 60 who had not been vaccinated. People under 40 who contracted the virus did not become very ill, he said.
Dr McCauley said he was cautious about the easing of restrictions for indoor facilities and warned that if the modelling indicated that there would be a surge in numbers then the Government would have to “be brave” and make the tough decision to defer.