The Taoiseach has said Ireland is going to see “a massive rise” in Covid-19 infections due to the Omicron variant which, if left unchecked, poses a “very real threat” to the health system and the economy.
In a televised address after the Cabinet approved a number of new restrictions to try to contain the spread of the disease, Mr Martin said the new variant "is exploding throughout Europe" and that the level of concern among his fellow leaders was higher than he had seen previously.
“It is here, in our country. And we are going to see a massive rise in infections. Already, in just a few days, more than a third of all new cases in the country are as a result of Omicron,” he said.
The challenge now, Mr Martin said, was to slow the rise in infections and prevent it from getting out of control over the Christmas and New Year period.
He confirmed that from Monday closing time for restaurants and pubs would be 8pm. The Government rejected a recommendation from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to close indoor hospitality at 5pm.
One source said the Government had not ignored the public health advice, which is to stay in effect until January 30th, but rather tweaked it. Cinemas, theatres and indoor events will also be subject to the 8pm closure time.
Ministers approved a change to close contact rules, which will see those exposed to a confirmed cases who have not had a booster vaccine dose having to restrict their movements for 10 days.
This could have major implications for people working in schools and the health service. People who have had a booster will be asked to restrict their movements for five days and take three antigens to check their Covid-19 status.
Hotels will be exempt from the 8pm closing time for overnight residents and weddings are to be limited to 100 people.
Attendance at outdoor events is to be limited to 50 per cent of venue capacity or 5,000 people, whichever is lower, meaning some major sporting events over Christmas could be curtailed or cancelled. All of the measures announced by Government will be reviewed on January 11th.
People arriving into Ireland from overseas will be required to have an antigen or PCR test in line with their vaccination or recovery status. All passengers coming into Ireland are now advised to use antigen tests on a daily basis for a period of five consecutive days after their arrival.
The Government is hoping the rollout of booster vaccines will help to limit the impact of the Omicron variant. It was announced on Friday night that people aged 40 to 49 be able to seek their jab from a vaccination centre, pharmacy or GP will from Sunday rather than December 27th.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the shots would be offered through a mixture of appointments and walk-in clinics. Details about walk-in opportunities are available at hse.ie, he said. The Minister said 160,000 doses had been administered in the last three days and it was "welcome to see so many people presenting" for vaccination before Christmas.
Mr Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan held lengthy discussions before the Cabinet meeting after being briefed on the pandemic situation by chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan.
Government backbenchers had earlier urged Ministers not to accept the 5pm curfew for pubs and restaurants, which a group of Fianna Fáil senators described as "a step too far". Dr Holohan this evening said the recommendation was less about the precise time but more about limiting activities in high-risk environments.
A further 3,628 confirmed cases of the disease were reported ahead of the meeting. The Department said 420 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised as of Friday morning, including 105 people in intensive care.
Dr Holohan said some 35 per cent of the latest cases were now of the Omicron variant, up from 27 per cent on Thursday.
At a press briefing on Friday night, Dr Holohan said the Omicron variant could evade the protection offered by the vaccine and pervious infection, but that they still work and take-up of booster shots was important.
He acknowledged the “hard measures” taken to combat its spread, but said these have been shown to have worked in the past.
“We believe that these measures will be important, particularly as we move through Christmas,” he said.
When asked how long the restrictions might remain for, the Taoiseach said he could not predict the path of the disease and that there are now two simultaneous epidemics – Delta and Omicron.
Mr Varadkar said he did not think the pandemic would last so long and “it could go on for several years. It is going to be a long war”.
Earlier, Nphet's modelling expert Prof Philip Nolan said Omicron would become the dominant strain in the State in the next four to five days. He said there could be 8,000 to 20,000 daily cases at the peak of the wave but this depended on the amount of social mixing.
He said there could be more than 2,000 people in hospital in January with the disease under the pessimistic scenario and that the numbers in intensive care could easily exceed 200. The most optimistic model said the hospital numbers could rise to between 650 and 1,000.
‘Final gut punch’
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on Friday night moved to assure businesses that they would not be allowed to fail because of the restrictions and that further Government support would be announced next week.
He said businesses would be needed more than ever after the pandemic and that young people should not lose heart after nearly two years of some of the toughest restrictions in Europe as things would improve by next summer.
In response to the restrictions, the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) said it was a “final gut punch for a sector that has faced an unprecedented pummelling since the pandemic started”.
It said the 8pm closing time made “little sense” and would lead to some pubs closing their doors for the duration of the curbs. It called for supports for affected businesses.
VFI chief executive Padraig Cribben said: “Christmas was the one chance we had to recoup some of the losses amassed earlier in the year but we’re now in a situation where staff will lose their jobs and pubs will shut one week before Christmas as they see little point in opening under these conditions.”
The Licensed Vintners Association (LVA), which represents pubs in Dublin, said the 8pm curfew for pubs and restaurants was “closure in camouflage”. The group described the closing time as “arbitrary” and said no scientific explanation had been provided.
“Many pubs have been expressing the view that they would rather be asked to close than have to accept an arbitrary curfew of 5pm or 8pm,” LVA chief executive Donall O’Keeffe said.
Garda sources said they expected the earlier closing times would be enforced by front line officers under Operation Navigation, which was created to enforce Covid-19 restrictions relating to licenced premises. The closing times must be provided for under public health regulations before Garda members have the power to enforce them, but this will not need Oireachtas approval.