The Government is bracing for an extremely difficult few weeks for hospitals due to high rates of Covid-19 infection, with Ministers expecting public health experts to recommend further restrictions in the next two weeks.
Modelling of likely pandemic scenarios presented to senior Ministers suggests the health service will face extreme pressures in the coming weeks as tens of thousands of cases work their way through the system.
This was the basis of stark warnings from senior health officials earlier this week that led to the restrictions announced on Tuesday. However, the Government hopes those measures, as well as a changed public mood evident in research for the Department of Health, will start having an effect early next month.
The modelling shows that under pessimistic projections, case numbers could rise to more than 12,000 a day, and potentially up to 15,000 a day, by the middle of December before falling sharply during January.
Under an optimistic scenario, there would be some 1,000 people in hospital with the disease in two weeks’ time, peaking at about 1,100 later in December.
In a pessimistic scenario, there would be about 1,250 people in hospital with coronavirus by the start of December, rising to a peak of just under 2,250 in the week before Christmas. In this scenario, there could be 200 people in intensive care units (ICU) at the start of December, rising to a peak of almost 450 before Christmas.
Were that to come to pass, it is likely that not all these people would be treated in ICUs, in order to prevent them becoming overwhelmed, and would instead receive oxygen therapy elsewhere, as happened at the start of the year.
The presentation given to Ministers warned that the numbers in hospitals and ICUs were high, increasing more slowly than cases are rising, but “are likely to increase significantly in the coming weeks”. There is an average of nine admissions to ICU per day.
“Deaths per day are increasing very slowly, at approximately 7 per day, or 200 deaths per month. This may increase, given the very high case counts, though booster vaccination of those aged 80 years and older should reduce mortality,” notes the briefing document.
However, there is a strong view in Government that severe restrictions, up to and including another lockdown, will be avoided, despite nervousness about what could face hospitals in the coming weeks.
The Cabinet is expected to hold an incorporeal meeting in the coming days to approve the subsidy for antigen tests, despite warnings about their use from State chief medical officer Tony Holohan. He believes the rapid tests have a role to play “in some circumstances” but that people could not rely on a negative result to conclude they were not infected and could socialise.
Guidelines for the use of antigen testing in schools are unlikely to be ready until the week after next. It is expected that pupils will be provided with free antigen tests if a member of their pod tests positive or develops symptoms.
It is also expected that the Health Service Executive will take steps to increase its use of private hospital beds for non-coronavirus care in the coming weeks.
The Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting last night heard criticism of Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly over his recent communications.
Sources said Senator Mary Seery-Kearney referenced Mr Donnelly saying in an interview last week that the Government was not then considering a work-from-home policy. She compared the comments with an infamous interview given in 2010 by then Fianna Fáil ministers Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey in which they denied talk of a potential bailout.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin gave what was described as a stark briefing on the current Covid situation at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting. He said the HSE presentation to Cabinet was very worrying and that the feedback from intensive care units was “concerning”.