Plans being formulated to guard against future coronavirus surges

Among issues being addressed are what defences to have ready, says Minister for Health

With the peak of the Omicron wave now seen as having passed, several Ministers yesterday outlined their strong preference to move away from strict measures. File photograph: Sasko Lavrov

With the peak of the Omicron wave now seen as having passed, several Ministers yesterday outlined their strong preference to move away from strict measures. File photograph: Sasko Lavrov

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Changes to the infrastructure put in place to battle the pandemic are being examined after Ireland weathered a “tsunami” of Omicron cases, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said.

With a widespread relaxation of restrictions put in place before Christmas now expected in the weeks ahead, Mr Donnelly told The Irish Times that medium-term planning to guard against future surges and variants of concern is now under way.

“We have just weathered a tsunami of Omicron cases – the issues we’re addressing now include what defences to have in place, should a future variant of concern arise,” he said.

Planning is also being done on “what ongoing threat could Omicron pose as immunity wanes across the population, what infrastructure do we need to put in place in areas such as vaccines, testing, tracing and [genetic] sequencing”.

Health sources have indicated that the hospital system is managing current levels of coronavirus well, but that infection of healthcare workers remains a problem.

With the peak of the Omicron wave now seen as having passed, several Ministers yesterday outlined their strong preference to move away from strict measures and to allow most legally mandated restrictions when current laws lapse at the end of March.

Hospital Report

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU
255 29

Minister of State Ossian Smyth said he does not want to see the restrictions extended and that “putting in restrictions and keeping restrictions is not just something we can keep doing. It’s building up and I think there’s a limit to how much people can take.”

Mr Donnelly also said he believes emergency powers should be lifted as quickly as possible.

Varadkar on restrictions

Separately, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting last night he wants to see March 31st as a “deadline to end almost all legal restrictions”.

Governments elsewhere are moving to shed restrictions, including Scotland where all measures brought in before Christmas will be lifted from next Monday.

However, the World Health Organisation has cautioned against presuming coronavirus is entering a final phase.

In a briefing, Dr Mike Ryan cautioned that “speaking purely of this as a mild virus or less severe gives the impression that this would be less severe in its impact on the health system. That is not the case if the virus is able to spread uncontrollably throughout society.”

His colleague Dr Maria Van Kerkhove said: “We’re hearing a lot of people suggesting that Omicron is the last variant, that it’s over after this; and that is not the case because this virus is circulating at a very intense level around the world.”

Meanwhile, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has said there is no evidence on the need for a fourth dose of vaccine in the general population. That said, it is reasonable to consider a fourth dose for people with severely weakened immune systems, officials told an online press conference.

The agency called for a long-term strategy on the types of vaccine needed to manage the disease and for manufacturers to focus on developing multivalent vaccines capable of protecting against different variants.

It said regulators agree that giving multiple booster doses at short notice would not be sustainable in the long term as this might reduce the level of antibodies produced.

An EMA review of scientific studies also found no sign of an increased risk of pregnancy complications, miscarriages, pre-term births or adverse effects in unborn babies following mRNA vaccination.