Cancelling social plans in run-up to Christmas is ‘responsible’ decision – Holohan

Further 43 Covid-related deaths notified in past week and 3,633 new cases of virus today

 Chief medical officer Tony Holohan said we are advising  people to ‘stay at home as much as possible’.  Photograph: Collins Photos

Chief medical officer Tony Holohan said we are advising people to ‘stay at home as much as possible’. Photograph: Collins Photos

 

Cancelling social plans in the run-up to Christmas is a “responsible” decision, according to chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, who has urged people to reduce social contacts amid an ongoing surge in Covid-19 cases in Ireland.

Speaking one day after new measures were introduced to combat the spread of the virus, Dr Holohan said these were “decisions that nobody wants to be taking at this time of the year”.

The Department of Health confirmed 3,633 new cases of Covid-19 in the State on Wednesday. As of 8am on Wednesday, 634 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised, an increase of 20 on Tuesday. Of the latest total, 119 were in ICU.

A further 43 deaths related to Covid-19 have been newly notified in the past week (since last Wednesday). This brings to 5,609 the total number of deaths related to Covid-19 notified in the State.

Asked on RTÉ Radio’s News at One whether office Christmas parties should be cancelled, Dr Holohan said: “We’re advising people to stay at home as much as possible and work from home - those would be responsible decisions, if they were to be taken.”

As for cancelling social plans generally, he said: “I know that this is the case, and I know it from my own life, that people are making these kind of decisions as ways of reducing their own risk and ways of reducing the risk to their loved ones, their friends and family and so on…

“To me those are responsible decisions now that people are making.”

The Government announced several measures on Tuesday aimed at curbing the fourth wave of the virus, which is placing hospitals and the health service under major pressure.

People were advised to work from home; a midnight closing time will be imposed on bars and nightclubs; and close contacts of a case in the same household must restrict movements for five days. Covid-19 passes were also extended to cinemas and theatres, although many in the sector had already required customers to show the certs.

Infection modelling

Dr Holohan on Wednesday said that 200,000 people who could potentially be infected in December had not yet been infected and transmission could be avoided if people took action now.

“There is no single measure on its own that will curb this. We need to use all of the measures together and use them properly and appropriately,” he said.

If 200,000 people became infected next month, as was predicted through modelling, that would mean 4,000 people would be hospitalised over the Christmas period, he said.

“The most important measures are the things that you as an individual can do. Wash your hands, wear a mask, limit your contacts, avoid crowds,” he urged.

Minister for Education Norma Foley on Wednesday called on parents to minimise social contacts for their children including play dates and birthday parties for children.

Dr Holohan called on anyone who had symptoms to isolate and get a PCR test, not an antigen test. Their close contacts should also restrict their movements.

When asked about Nphet’s position on antigen tests, Dr Holohan said he had always said they had a role to play “in some circumstances” but that people could not rely on a negative test result to conclude they did not have Covid and could socialise.

Antigen tests

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on Wednesday said current advice for a plan to encourage widespread use of antigen tests was against providing the rapid tests free of charge.

Prices of about €8 per test were “too much”, and the Government would be announcing a scheme to subsidise the tests in the coming days, the cost of which would likely run to several hundred million euros, he said.

“The advice I have is they shouldn’t be free – they had them free in the UK, and the government came under huge criticism from parliament for that, because essentially there were no controls on how they were being used at all,” he said.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) is currently sending packs of five antigen tests to people deemed close contacts, he said.

When asked if a circuit breaker lockdown would eventually be needed to halt the rise in cases, Mr Donnelly said “nobody can answer that question right now,” later adding that things “can never be ruled out”.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney also said further restrictions could not be ruled out, and voiced concern that “too many people” were not turning up for Covid-19 booster shots.

However, the World Health Organisation’s special envoy on Covid-19, Dr David Nabarro, said he did not think that Ireland was heading back into strict lockdown.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show, Dr Nabarro said although the figures at present were high, he was hopeful, especially since the country had acted quickly.

He said the Government had a clear idea of what was going on, “there will have to be some restrictions, but I don’t get a feeling that you’re moving into stringent lockdown, I very much hope that won’t happen.”

In a televised address on Tuesday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said if not for the effect of the vaccination programme the country would be in another lockdown.

Mr Martin said it remained to be seen if the changes “will be sufficient” and he said he was “not ruling out further measures” in the future, with the situation to be reviewed in a number of weeks.

Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys said that the Pandemic Unemployment Payment would not be reopened for people who may lose their jobs in nightclubs, a move that Opposition parties have criticised.

Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty on Wednesday criticised the plan not to provide free antigen tests to the public, describing it as a “serious mistake” given the amount spent on other pandemic supports.

Priority

On schools, Ms Foley said “at every stage” she had made the case for giving the education sector “due consideration” for priority when it comes to vaccines and boosters.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio, she said she understood that by the end of this week the HSE would have a plan in place for the operation of antigen testing in schools.

Her department had worked closely with the HSE and was ready to assist with the introduction of antigen testing which had been considered for some time by Nphet, but “it was only last week that [Dr Holohan] made the decision” that it was appropriate to use antigen tests in schools.

The Minister acknowledged that there were challenges such as the number of substitute teachers available. A suite of measures had been introduced, she said.

It was up to “each one of us individually to hunker down for the next couple of weeks”.

Ms Foley said she did not know if further restrictions would be required or if schools might not reopen in January. It was an issue for wider society, and “we must all shoulder the responsibility”.