Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he is “very worried” and “apprehensive” about the “sheer scale” of spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant.
Speaking on radio on Saturday morning, Mr Martin said the number of cases of the variant was doubling every few days and it "could well be" that the worst of the pandemic had yet to been seen.
“I’m apprehensive in terms of what this might mean in terms of the sheer scale of infection, volume of cases and the great unknown at the moment – which is why we can’t take risks – the great unknown being, how severe is this in terms of requiring hospitalisations and ICUs and just damaging people in terms of health,” he said.
However, Mr Martin said he had always been an optimist and in tackling the spread of Omicron “the combination of booster and behaviour will matter”.
On Saturday, a further 7,333 Covid-19 cases were reported in the State.
As of 8am on Saturday, 410 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised, of which 107 were in ICU.
Prof Philip Nolan, chair of the Nphet modelling group, said the Omicron would be dominant “within days”, with 35 per cent of positive swabs on Wednesday having the “S-gene target failure marker” for the variant.
He tweeted that: “The level of social contact in the next three weeks is key... if we fail to act the impact of Omicron could be devastating.
“We can hope that this is a short sharp wave, and that we can regroup in early spring with more extensive booster vaccination complete; the earlier and harder we act now, the more likely it is that we will manage, and can de-escalate earlier in 2022.”
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said in statement; “Recent international experience and the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant here means we can expect to see a large number of cases over the next short period of time.
“We all remember the call to ‘flatten the curve’ in the early days of the pandemic – we have successfully driven down incidence of disease in the community before – we can and must now work together to do it again.
“By choosing to act safely right now, together we can limit the impact this disease will have in the weeks to come and in doing so, we can protect the vulnerable, prevent unnecessary deaths and ensure the continued operation of our healthcare system and other essential services.”
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said: “The growth of the Omicron variant represents a significant threat to people’s ability to safely enjoy the Christmas and New Year period. Over the coming days please think about each of your social contacts and consider whether now is the time to be meeting with them.”
The Taoiseach was speaking after it was announced that new Covid restrictions will come into operation on Monday and he said that he recognised there was a lot of “devastation” especially among businesses that would be affected.
Pubs and restaurants will now close at 8pm instead of 5pm which was advised by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).
Both Mr Martin and chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said the new restrictions were “precautionary” as modelling produced by Nphet and presented to the leaders of the Coalition suggested that there could be as many as 30,000 cases a day in a “pessimistic” scenario.
Mr Martin on Saturday urged people to use antigen tests before going to social events and while he acknowledged Nphet had argued against the widespread reliance on antigen tests, he said he was supportive of their use.
In terms of people making plans for social contacts “a positive antigen test is a very valuable thing”, Mr Martin said.
However, the Taoiseach did not advocate widespread distribution of free antigen tests to the general population. He said supermarkets had reduced the price of the tests significantly and that antigen tests had been made available free in a number of cases to sectors of the population, including to third-level students.
Speaking on the Brendan O'Connor show on RTÉ Radio 1 Mr Martin said it would be "a challenge" but that he was confident schools would reopen in January as it appears numbers had "stabilised" in schools and the vaccination scheme was being rolled out to a "best-in-the-world standard".
Between antigen and PCR, some 350,000 tests a week were being carried out, he said. However, Mr Martin said the positivity rate had risen to 18 per cent in recent days, up from 13 per cent “a week or two ago”.
The Taoiseach also addressed Irish people living in the United Kingdom and said it was "okay to come home", despite the significant case numbers. He urged these people to consider getting a booster and antigen test before they return home.
Among the measures announced yesterday, it was also outlined that 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. People arriving into Ireland from overseas will be required to have an antigen or PCR test in line with their vaccination or recovery status.
Attendance at outdoor events is also 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.
Mr Martin confirmed proof of a booster vaccine would be included on Covid passes in the new year and said this would be essential for ease of travel across Europe.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid this morning tweeted that more than 1.46 million boosters had been administered.
“Yesterday, over 55,000 people received a vaccine. Almost 250,000 vaccines administered from Monday to Friday, this week. A great response once again from the Irish public to strengthen our protection,” he said.
From Sunday, December 19th, people aged 40-49 who have already completed their primary course of Covid-19 vaccine will be eligible for a booster vaccine, following guidance from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee.
People over 40 can attend designated walk-in clinic or wait until they receive a text message from the HSE with a scheduled appointment.
Dr Colm Henry, chief clinical officer with the HSE, said: "I am urging all those eligible for their Covid booster vaccine to avail of it. We want the protection provided by the booster to be as robust as possible over the winter months."
Dr Henry added: “We have multiple channels to access a Covid-19 vaccine, and I am making a public call to those who remain unvaccinated to take this opportunity as soon as possible in order to ensure they are protected from serious illness from Covid-19.”
Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, the deaths of a further five patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 have been reported.
Another 2,075 confirmed cases of the virus were also notified by the North’s Department of Health on Saturday.
Separately, the World Health Organisation said the Omicron variant of the virus was spreading significantly faster than the Delta strain in countries with documented community transmission, with a doubling time of 1.5-3 days.
The Omicron variant, which was designated as a variant of concern on November 26th, has been identified in 89 countries across all six WHO regions as of December 16th, the WHO said. – Additional reporting: PA