Government plans for a wider reopening of the economy and society from July 5th will not be affected by the likelihood that the highly transmissible Covid-19 Delta variant will spread in Ireland, Cabinet members believe.
The new strain, also known as the Indian variant, has caused concern within the Government given it is some 60 per cent more transmissible than the original Alpha variant and people who have had only the first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine are no more than 33 per cent protected from it.
The issue will form the basis of discussions at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting and will also be discussed by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) when it meets later this week.
Nphet on Monday reported a further 242 cases of the disease and no further related deaths. The figures may be revised in future as health systems remain impacted by last month’s cyberattack on the HSE.
It said there were 67 people being treated in hospital for Covid-19 with 23 patients sick with the disease in intensive care.
The Delta variant has spread quickly in the UK, with the number of infections more than doubling in numbers in the past week. There are also over 110 cases in Northern Ireland.
Numbers in this jurisdiction have remained comparatively low but Ministers acknowledged that rising incidence of the Delta variant in the State was “inevitable”.
The Cabinet is expected to support an increase to the self-isolation period for travellers from Britain from five days to 10 days if they have not received two doses of a vaccine. However, fully vaccinated passengers arriving into Ireland from Britain will face no quarantine restrictions under the proposal set to be approved by Ministers on Tuesday.
Senior Government sources dismissed the suggestion that the variant might affect the schedule for the reopening of society, after British prime minister Boris Johnson announced a postponement of the last stages of reopening in England.
The sources based this on the fact that the UK is at a different stage of reopening than Ireland; and because the period between the first and second AstraZeneca doses is much longer in the UK than in the State, where it has been reduced to eight weeks from 12 weeks. The second dose of AstraZeneca is more than 80 per cent effective against the variant.
“The narrative that our reopening will slow down is not true,” one Minister said privately. “I don’t believe Delta will affect our reopening plan. Indeed, the plan to move ahead with the next stage on July 5th still remains intact.”
A senior source said one reason for that is that the UK is at the final stages of reopening, which includes the resumption of nightclubs.
“We are not at that stage yet so you are comparing apples to oranges,” said the source. “I think there will be a degree of nervousness. It is a timing issue. It is a race between the vaccine and the variant.
“We have the benefit in Ireland in that there is a shorter time period between the first and second dose of AstraZeneca, unlike the UK where they pushed out the period in order to vaccinate as many people as possible.
“My understanding is that most of the doses of AstraZeneca being administered (in Ireland) are second doses.”
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Friday that he took particular notice during the British Irish Council meeting when political leaders from across the UK expressed concern about the spread of the variants.
“Some jurisdictions were saying we are not quite out of the woods yet. I think that is the context and that is the background,” he said.
“With Covid-19 the last cloud on the horizon is the Delta variant. I think we need to (address it) through close collaboration and getting all hands on deck. It is a very serious issue for the people we (all) represent.”