Ministers have been warned the number of Covid patients in hospital could double by the end of the month. However, the Government will press ahead and present, before August is out, a road map for the easing or removal of remaining restrictions.
Figures given to the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid-19 on Friday suggested there may be 400 patients in hospital by the end of the month, based on current growth patterns. There were 189 cases in hospital at 8am on Friday.
The subcommittee was told that Ireland has not yet reached the peak of the latest wave of the disease. However, sources said the meeting heard Ireland is likely to follow the pattern seen in the UK, with cases declining from a peak in the coming weeks.
While both current and projected hospitalisations are substantially lower than previous waves due to the effect of vaccines, Health Service Executive chief executive Paul Reid warned the committee that Covid patients have a disproportionate impact on the healthcare system due to the need to isolate them and sometimes create dedicated wards. Hospitals are busier than usual, Ministers were told, while non-Covid care is continuing unlike during previous waves of infection.
There were 1,782 cases of Covid-19 confirmed on Friday, the highest figure since late January. The vaccination rollout continues to provide protection, however, with Ministers told the current estimate is that children aged 12 and above will have received their second dose before the end of September.
Unwinding of restrictions
Ministers were also told that a HSE survey requested by the Cabinet found the majority of people in hospital with a Covid diagnosis were being treated for the disease, with around a quarter positive but not sick with the disease. However, these patients also have to be isolated, causing a load on the system.
Following the meeting on Friday, the Government signalled it would map out the final stages of unwinding pandemic restrictions. All restrictions currently in place will remain for the rest of the month, although new guidelines for outdoor gatherings will clear the way for live music to take place in the open air. Multiple tables can be booked outside, but mingling between tables is barred in a move that led to a backlash from the hospitality industry, which argued it would be challenging to police. Music will also be allowed outdoors at weddings. Bar service and dancing remain against guidelines, however.
The guidelines, hastily redrawn following political controversy surrounding an event organised by former minister Katherine Zappone at Dublin's Merrion Hotel last month and attended by about 50 people including Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, allow for crowds of up to 200.
Communions and confirmations are set to be given the green light in September, although the Government said the “trajectory remains very uncertain in relation to Covid-19”.
Varadkar’s ‘guard down’
At the end of August it will publish a road map for the easing or removal of the remaining restrictions and a plan to reopen activities in the live entertainment, culture and arts sectors.
Meanwhile Mr Varadkar has apologised for attending the event hosted by Ms Zappone and said “I probably let my guard down.”
Speaking publicly about the event for the first time on RTÉ’s Six One News, Mr Varadkar said he did not breach the public health regulations and also does not believe the guidelines that sit alongside the regulations were breached. He also denied that the guidelines were updated to suit him.
“For my part, I probably let my guard down. I did do a treble check. I checked the regulations, the ones I sign off on, the ones I am familiar with, I checked with the organiser of the event and the manager of the hotel as I arrived.”
He said he wanted to say "very clearly that the event was not in breach of the Government regulations in place at the time which allow for outdoor gatherings of over 200, and probably wasn't in breach of the Fáilte Ireland guidelines either".
Those guidelines, he said, were not clear and have changed 35 times since the pandemic began.