The Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has announced the extension of the Covid-19 booster vaccination programme to include the over-50s, those with underlying medical conditions and those in long-term healthcare facilities.
The announcement comes following recommendations made by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) to chief medical officer Tony Holohan, who has endorsed the advice.
The Niac has recommended that a booster dose of an mRNA vaccine now be offered to those aged 50- to 59-years-old who have completed their primary course with any Covid-19 vaccine.
It has also been recommended for those aged 16-59 who have an underlying medical condition and for residents in long-term healthcare facilities, irrespective of age, many of whom will have an underlying condition.
As per previous booster dose recommendations, the additional dose will be given at least five months after completion of the first vaccination schedule.
If a person in one of the recommended groups for booster dose is has had Covid-19 after a completed primary vaccine course, the booster dose should be delayed for at least six months after the infection was diagnosed.
Mr Donnelly said: “In Ireland, we have already seen that booster doses given to those aged 80 years and older have been followed by a sharp decline in case numbers in that age group. This is very welcome news, and I encourage all of those who are eligible for a booster dose of Covid-19 vaccine to come forward and receive that vaccine as soon as it is available to you.
“Niac have strongly recommended that those who have yet to receive their primary vaccination do so as a matter of urgency given the current force of infection in the community.”
A new closing time of midnight for pubs and restaurants from Thursday has been agreed by Cabinet, with advice on working from home to change from Friday.
Cabinet also agreed to change the public health advice for households where a case of Covid-19 is confirmed. Members of the household will now be asked to restrict their movements for five days by staying at home.
Previously, vaccinated people with no symptoms in such a situation were not obliged to restrict movements.
Sources indicated impacted households will be sent antigen tests.
The mood at Cabinet was sombre about the situation facing the country, sources said.
Downbeat assessment from the HSE about the issues facing the State’s hospitals forced the Government’s hand, sources said, pointing out the change to nightclub opening hours is the first time the Coalition has moved to curb freedoms without specific advice on a measure from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).
Sources said the hope was the situation could be reassessed in three weeks. Engagement is planned during the week with the Labour Employer Economic Forum (LEEF) about working from home. The Cabinet meeting concluded this afternoon.
On his way into the meeting earlier, Micheál Martin said: “We’ve got to make decisions today but also I think collectively as a society we’ve got to look out for each other and just be very aware that the situation is getting worse, and will get worse before it gets better.”
Ministers discussed whether the closing time of pubs should change in an effort to suppress rising Covid cases, less than a month after a curfew was dropped.
A previous curfew of 11.30pm was removed at the end of October.
There will be a different situation for hotel bars.
The Cabinet discussed a number of possible actions in response to the growing fourth wave of the virus.
Mr Martin had confirmed that advice from Nphet on working from home and other measures would be considered today.
He said there was an obligation on everyone to reduce social interactions to help reduce transmission, adding that the situation demanded “fairly quick action”.
“The overall objective is to prevent people getting very sick, going into hospitals, ICUs. We simply have to limit the increase we are experiencing at the moment,” he said.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the latest modelling on hospitalisations and intensive care admissions was “very stark”.
“If we did nothing and were to continue as is, we could be looking at somewhere between 200 and maybe up to 500 people in ICU. Obviously, that’s not something we could countenance.”
There was no dedicated memo on antigen testing at Cabinet earlier today, with the issue briefly dealt with in the memo brought by Mr Martin, which briefly outlined that a protocol will be worked out between Mr Donnelly and Minister for Education Norma Foley for their use on close contacts in schools. Similarly, proposals for subsidising the tests were briefly addressed.
Other proposals expected to be discussed at the meeting include issuing new advice for people to work from home where possible, and expanded guidance on wearing face masks, as well as extending the requirement for Covid certs to gyms and hairdressers.
Earlier, an immunology expert called for faster action from Government in rolling out a booster vaccination campaign.
Professor Paul Moynagh called on the Government to "act with speed now" to roll out a widespread booster vaccine programme.
The academic said it was confusing why the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) had taken so long to make a decision on booster vaccines, given there had been “real world data” from Israel for some time that the additional shots were safe and effective.
Boosters would be “enormously effective” at weakening the link between case numbers and hospitalisations, he told Newstalk Breakfast.
Prof Moynagh was also critical that Ireland was “very late to the game” when it came to supporting antigen testing, as the Government considers subsidising the rapid tests.
Paul Reid, head of the Health Service Executive (HSE), told a Monday evening meeting of the Cabinet Covid subcommittee that the health service was now at greater risk than at any time during the pandemic, as it copes with the fresh wave of the virus while trying to continue providing other care.
New guidance from Niac is expected to clear the way to provide booster vaccine shots to those in their 50s, and others with underlying health conditions. At present those aged 60-79 are approved to receive booster vaccinations.
Liam Woods, HSE director of acute hospitals, also stressed the importance of the vaccine booster campaign, particularly for older age cohorts.
The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began surpassed 500,000 on Monday, after a further 4,570 daily cases were reported.
Dr Ina Kelly, president of the Irish Medical Organisation, said hospitals were facing "huge capacity issues" heading into the winter, particularly in intensive care.
The HSE’s proposed winter plan was “inadequate” to deal with the pressure the health service would face over the coming months, Dr Kelly told RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland.