The Omicron strain of Covid-19 is “exploding throughout Europe”, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said as he outlined a series of new pandemic restrictions on Friday.
Confirming hospitality businesses including pubs and restaurants would have to close their doors at 8pm during the Christmas period, Mr Martin appealed to the public to remain steadfast in the face of rapidly rising infections.
“We are all exhausted with Covid and the restrictions it requires. The twists and turns, the disappointments and the frustrations take a heavy toll on everyone,” he said, adding that another “massive rise in infections” seemed inevitable. “We cannot wish it away, and there is no silver bullet to fix it.”
In his latest address to the nation, shortly after the Cabinet agreed the new restrictions, Mr Martin said he had spoken to European leaders and said “the level of concern about what is coming is the highest that I have seen”.
“We are still in the early days of this new wave and data is still being collected, but already it is very clear that we are dealing with a hugely transmissible strain of the disease, with studies showing that it is many times more transmissible than the Delta variant,” he said.
“Already, in just a few days, more than a third of all new cases in the country are as a result of Omicron.”
Mr Martin said the challenge the Government and public faced was “how we slow the rise in infection that is coming and how we prevent it from getting out of control”.
“Left unchecked, this new strain will represent a very significant threat to hospital and critical care, but also a threat to all of society and the economy.”
Given the aggressive nature of Omicron, the Taoiseach also noted that the country is likely to see infection rates far in excess of anything recorded to date.
Mr Martin acknowledged high vaccination rates and an improvement in business and social conditions compared to last Christmas, but said he was conscious of the pain the latest restrictions would undoubtedly inflict.
“I really cannot over emphasise how important it is for everyone to get vaccinated and get your booster - the science is absolutely clear on the benefits, and the protection it gives us from serious illness, hospitalisation and death,” he said, just as the booster programme accelerates.
“However, with the Omicron variant it is also becoming clear that vaccines on their own aren’t going to be enough to get through this wave safely.”
Mr Martin said next year would bring new anti-viral drugs and therapeutics.
“Our economic recovery has been much stronger than anyone predicted and this will endure next year. We just need to get to the other side of this Omicron wave as safely as possible.”