Covid-19 restrictions to ease despite growing concern about rising infection on both sides of Border

People will be able to travel outside their county and gather in homes from Friday

Christmas shoppers on the Hapenny Bridge   in Dublin’s City Centre. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Christmas shoppers on the Hapenny Bridge in Dublin’s City Centre. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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Covid-19 restrictions will be eased from Friday despite growing concern over infection numbers on both sides of the Border ahead of the Christmas holidays.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he expected the R number, a key indicator of the spread of the disease, would on Thursday be confirmed as having risen above 1. This means that each infected person is passing Covid-19 on to at least one other.

“It’s a concern. The numbers today were high,” he said after 431 new cases and six deaths were confirmed. “The lead indicators we have suggest, as anticipated, that cases are on the rise in the Republic.”

However, he said the plans to allow people to travel outside their county and gather in other people’s homes from Friday would still go ahead.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said there were “significant and concerning indicators that this disease is moving in the wrong direction”.

He said the rise in cases and the proportion of tests coming back positive were “troubling trends” given the State was “heading into a period of potential widespread inter-household and inter-generational mixing”.

“This is an ideal opportunity for the virus to spread and impact on those most vulnerable to its severest effects,” he said.

Senior public health sources expressed concern at more than 400 daily cases having been reported for a second time since Sunday. The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has previously advised that a three-week intervention would be needed when case numbers “approach 400 per day”, although much depends on the rate of growth of the disease.

A Government source said there would “of course” be concern, but that Ireland was still performing well compared with other European countries.

Northern Ireland

Taoiseach Micheál Martin told Wednesday night’s Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting there was a need to “keep an eye” on infections here and that he was concerned about the levels being seen in Northern Ireland.

Weekly meetings of Cabinet and senior officials on Brexit and Covid-19 would continue over the Christmas period, he said.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly spoke to his Stormont counterpart Robin Swann on Wednesday. A spokeswoman for Mr Donnelly said if Northern Ireland requested help, “this would of course be provided”.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly says the lead indicators suggest, as anticipated, that cases are on the rise in the Republic. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly says the lead indicators suggest, as anticipated, that cases are on the rise in the Republic. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

A North South Ministerial Council meeting will take place on Friday.

The North’s lockdown ended last Friday with retail and much of the hospitality sector allowed to reopen, with further relaxations to come for the period from December 23rd to December 27th.

However, a total of 457 patients were on Wednesday receiving treatment for Covid-19 in the North’s hospitals, with 32 people in intensive care and 25 on ventilators. Eight more Covid-19 deaths and 510 cases were reported on Wednesday.

Interventions

Mr Swann said a series of “decisive” and “robust” interventions would be proposed to try to deal with heavy demands on the health service.

Nphet recommended against non-essential travel to and from Northern Ireland, and may repeat the warning after its meeting on Thursday.

The number of people seeking beds in Irish hospitals has been rising, with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation’s trolley watch survey on Wednesday counting 293 people in emergency departments and in wards awaiting admission. The figure on Tuesday was 316, the worst level of overcrowding seen since the start of the pandemic.

Anne O’Connor, HSE chief operations officer, said the health service was “not in terrible trouble” but that an increase in Covid-19 cases would translate into “issues in our hospitals” and then in critical care.

“There is no doubt our system will be under pressure in January,” she told RTÉ’s News at One.

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