Vaccine certs scrapped for hospitality as Covid now ‘more like flu’ – expert

Potential new variants causing more severe disease could lead to reimposition of controls

Dr Kevin Kelleher talks to Paul Reid, chief executive of the HSE. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Dr Kevin Kelleher talks to Paul Reid, chief executive of the HSE. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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Covid vaccine passes are now unnecessary in hospitality settings because the Omicron variant and high levels of vaccine booster penetration means Covid is currently “more like flu”, a former member of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has said.

However, the emergence of other variants or the further seasonal mutation of Omicron could mean they will be needed again, said Dr Kevin Kelleher, a former assistant national director with the HSE.

He was speaking after Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly defended the decision to scrap the requirement for the Covid-19 pass to access hospitality, saying that “for now” the sector should open up fully.

“What we’re experiencing now with Omicron is more like flu, and we never used the vaccine pass for that,” Dr Kelleher said. While those who are immunosuppressed might face some more risks from the hospitality sector, he said similar risks existed before with other transmissible diseases.

If a new variant were to emerge that is “more infectious but less disease-orientated”, there would be no need to reintroduce vaccine passes. “But if it turns out to be more like Alpha [the variant that was dominant in Ireland in the first half of 2021], then yes”.

He said he believes Ireland should “wait and see what comes about come summer and autumn with regards to new variants,” adding that current Covid vaccines are more effective than flu vaccines.

Dr Kelleher was a member of Nphet from its inception prior to the first wave of Covid until his retirement last year.

Unvaccinated risk

Mr Donnelly said that although there had been “secondary benefits”, such as reassuring the medically vulnerable that they were sitting next to a vaccinated person and driving demand for booster shots and primary vaccines, the public health rationale had now lapsed.

Speaking on Newstalk’s On the Record programme, the Minister said the pass “was broadly supported and it did work but I am satisfied that, for now anyway, the rationale is there to open up hospitality fully”.

He said unvaccinated people were putting themselves at risk.

“I think it is on them, if they choose not to get vaccinated they are knowingly putting themselves at significantly higher risk. But ultimately that is a choice for them,” he said, agreeing the political judgment had been made that it is a choice for these people rather than a public duty to protect them.

“The emergency powers we brought in are very serious, and we’re talking about curtailing peoples’ civil liberties, their economic liberties. They should only be done when there’s a very strong public health rationale,” he said.

Mr Donnelly also indicated that emergency powers due to expire at the end of March would be allowed to do so unless there is “a clear and present danger that needs to be addressed”.

Mr Donnelly said that a little less than half of the number of people in hospital with the disease had “incidental” Covid and were not being treated primarily for the virus – “and that number has been growing and growing”.

Meanwhile, only about one in five patients in intensive care with Covid has had a booster, and almost all of them have underlying conditions, he said.

There was also a large number of long-stay patients, probably infected with the Delta variant, the Minister said.

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