The Omicron variant now represents 27 per cent of all new Covid-19 cases, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said.
Speaking in the Dáil on Thursday, Mr Donnelly said: "Last week the Omicron variant made up about 1 per cent of all new cases in Ireland. By the weekend it was up to 5 per cent.
“On Tuesday, the rate reported was 14 per cent. Today, just two days later, I can confirm to the House that the Omicron variant now comprised over 27 per cent of all new cases,” Mr Donnelly said.
Mr Donnelly said it was “an urgent situation” with the Omicron variant “spreading rapidly”.
A further 4,141 confirmed cases of Covid-19 were reported in the State on Thursday.
As of 8am on Thursday, 443 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised, of which 108 were in ICU.
In a statement on Thursday evening, the department said, following further data validation, the total number Omicron cases confirmed through whole genome sequencing in Ireland to date has been revised down to 39 confirmed cases. The number had been put at 42 on Wednesday.
Asked to explain the difference between these case numbers and the 27 per cent estimate, officials said the 39 confirmed Omicron cases had all undergone genome-sequencing - a process that can take some time.
The additional Omicron cases referred to by Mr Donnelly related to the number of new cases that contained the “S Gene Drop-out” – the marker that indicated they are likely to be this particular variant.
Separately, the HSE said it would start vaccinating most children in the wider 5-11 age group against Covid-19 from Monday, January 10th after vaccinations begin for high-risk children first next week.
Plans for the extension of the vaccination programme to children were outlined by the HSE at its weekly Covid-19 briefing. Priority is being given initially to high-risk children through Children’s Health Ireland and the country’s paediatric hospitals from next week.
An online portal will open for registration from December 28th for all high risk children and children from families with younger high-risk children and members with vaccinations of these groups starting on January 3rd in vaccination centres.
All other children aged five to 11 will start to be vaccinated from January 10th.
The State’s public health team met on Thursday to discuss tightening rules with restrictions on large sporting events and hospitality as well as warnings about large family gatherings and house parties under consideration.
Despite the spread of Omicron, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday night that schools would not close early and would reopen as scheduled next year.
Ministers expect to tighten some restrictions after the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) meeting, but sources say there is a sense that severe lockdown-type measures are not likely to be considered.
People may be asked to avoid large gatherings and to cut their close contacts in the lead-up to Christmas. Nphet will also likely discuss rules on tightening restrictions around sporting events over Christmas and around large family gatherings and house parties. People may also be asked to increase their use of antigen tests, particularly before meeting elderly relatives.
On travel, the Government is favouring an EU-wide approach, and harsh new restrictions are not expected as Omicron looks set to be the dominant variant next week.
Cabinet is expected to meet on Friday to discuss any new recommendations from Nphet, and decide whether to accept that advice.There has been speculation that opening hours for hospitality may be examined, with the possibility of earlier closing times under consideration.
The head of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, Adrian Cummins, last night said any further restrictions on hospitality “will have a devastating economic impact on businesses”.
Speaking in the Dáil, Mr Donnelly said people in their 40s would begin to receive appointments for their booster shots next week and they would begin to be administered the following week.
Mr Donnelly said the UK recorded its highest number of cases in one day since the pandemic began with more than 78,600 new cases. “We know it’s going to result in an increase in cases very soon in Ireland as well,” he added.
Mr Donnelly said about 1.4 million booster shots had been administered to date, placing Ireland third in the European Union and eighth in the world in terms of the percentage of adults who have had a booster.
He said the aim was that by the end of the year, everyone in the higher risk groups would have received their booster shot or got an appointment.
The Minister was providing an update on Covid-19 in the Dáil alongside the Minister for Education Norma Foley.
Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan said the Government would “move mountains” to ensure schools reopen in the New Year, in particular for children with special needs and those who attend special schools.
Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said there should be “an early decision” on next year’s Leaving Certificate. The Dublin Bay North TD also asked why schools couldn’t be used to vaccinate children and staff and said it “makes so much sense”.
Sinn Féin’s health spokesman David Cullinane said the Government had “failed to make the right call time and again in so many areas” over recent months, pointing to antigen tests, ventilation and the booster campaign.
Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall said there was “no official record of boosters” and that this would raise “huge problems” over Christmas and the New Year.
“Other European countries are moving to require evidence of the booster, in Austria for example, and a lot of Irish people will be travelling there over the Christmas break. You must have a booster and evidence of the booster, people currently don’t have that,” she said.