Government braces for impact of Omicron strain over Christmas period

Ministers may consider tighter restrictions as Holohan warns of ‘rapid increase’ in cases

 Chief medical officer  Dr Tony Holohan and Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Government Buildings, Dublin. Dr Holohan said  he was not surprised by the high daily cases as Omicron now accounts for nearly three-quarters of them. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Government Buildings, Dublin. Dr Holohan said he was not surprised by the high daily cases as Omicron now accounts for nearly three-quarters of them. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

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The Government is bracing for the impact of the Omicron variant driving sustained high levels of transmission and record case numbers over the Christmas period.

Last night the Department of Health reported 7,411 new cases, and officials warned the daily number is likely to climb significantly higher in the next week.

But senior sources said indications from the United Kingdom that people infected with the new variant were much less likely to need hospital care were encouraging, though not yet conclusive.

It is likely Ministers and senior officials will meet in the middle of next week to consider if further measures, including tighter restrictions in advance of New Year’s Eve celebrations, are needed to control the spread of the variant.

Contingency plans have been drawn up across Government in recent days following high-level talks between officials and the political system this week.

A derogation for non-healthcare key workers from isolation requirements is likely to form the cornerstone of the plan, with Coalition figures focused on ensuring public service continuity amid expected high levels of infection.

Officials are also examining ways of controlling the risk of infection from derogated close contacts, with an enhanced role for antigen testing likely.

Hospital Report

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Officials have also been tasked with identifying triggers for contingency plans to be put into action, as the Coalition seeks to avoid a repeat of the damaging third wave of infection that exerted massive pressure on the healthcare system and led to more than 1,000 deaths in the first part of this year.

Huge wave

While no meeting of the National Public Health Emergency Team is planned until early January, public health officials will consult with Government and the wider civil service across the festive period.

Senior sources said data available so far makes clear that the country is facing a huge wave of new infections, but it is unclear what trajectory the disease will take. With Christmas complicating data reporting, it is likely to be several days before a clear picture emerges.

The view in Government at present is that there is nothing currently in the data that would prompt a push for additional measures. However, if there is a worse than expected deterioration in the days after Christmas, new public health advice for further measures would likely follow quickly.

With new case numbers jumping on Thursday – though hospital and ICU numbers both declined – there is an acceptance Omicron is already driving extremely high levels of transmission in the community, with positivity rates in testing over 20 per cent. “It’s ripping through,” one senior source said.

There is hope that vaccine resistance, evidence of milder outcomes associated with Omicron, and the booster campaign may mitigate the impact – but fears that the size of the wave may nonetheless threaten hospitals.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said with the fast-spreading Omicron variant accounting for almost three-quarters of cases, the high daily case total was “not unexpected” and a “rapid increase” in cases was expected.

Booster programme

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly announced a further acceleration of the booster vaccination programme as the Government ramps up efforts to protect more people against the more contagious variant.

Mr Donnelly said boosters would be available to people aged in their 30s and those aged between 16 and 29 who received the single-dose Janssen vaccine from next Wednesday before third doses are extended to all age groups from January 10th.

Most five- to 11-year-olds will be offered a primary vaccine dose from January 8th, with the portal to book an appointment opening on December 28th.

In the UK, an analysis for the Health Security Agency has found people infected with the Omicron variant are 50 to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital compared with previous variants. The report comes after similar conclusions in South Africa, Denmark and Scotland, all pointing to reduced severity.

Yesterday, the UK recorded almost 120,000 new cases.

Approaching pressure points here include the State’s Covid-19 testing service and general practitioners’ surgeries, which could soon find themselves “swamped”, sources warned.

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