Senior Government figures including Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan have signalled they may decide later this month to ease restrictions, despite continuing record numbers of Covid-19 infections.
A discussion among Ministers at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting was “cautiously optimistic”, according to sources present, with a view forming in Government that the worst of the pandemic has passed.
“The mood is becoming more optimistic,” said one Minister.
Later Dr Holohan said the possibility of lifting Covid-19 restrictions on hospitality and other sectors was “all in play” next week when the Government’s public-health advisers meet to consider the impact of the Omicron wave of infections in more detail.
At a media briefing, Dr Holohan said it was “fair” to question why hospitality settings would not be reopened fully when higher rates of infection among younger people from the surge in Omicron infections were likely to lead to a high level of population immunity.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) needed another week to ensure all that the things that it “might have feared” from Omicron had not played out, he said.
Dr Holohan said the measures announced by the Government on Wednesday on relaxation of isolation and testing rules, replacing them with new directions that Covid-19 cases and close contacts wear higher-grade face masks and undergo regular antigen testing, was a “proportionate” response to a variant that was not leading to serious levels of illness.
But Dr Holohan also urged caution at a meeting of senior officials on Wednesday, according to people briefed on the exchange. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” said one source.
There is also some nervousness in Government and health circles about the return of most students to colleges in the next fortnight, as many have not yet received their booster vaccine doses.
However, several senior sources said if things go as expected in the coming weeks restrictions should be lifted in early February. Ministers will be keen to give notice to businesses and sporting organisations about the prospects for lifting restrictions.
An Nphet meeting is scheduled for next week at which Dr Holohan and other senior officials will review the latest data. Ministers hope they will then be in a position to give clear signals about the plans for the lifting of restrictions in February, including the prospects for forthcoming large sporting events such as the Six Nations rugby championship.
Public opinion research published by the Department of Health suggests the public is also growing more optimistic about the current wave, with an uptick in the past week in the numbers who believe the worst of the pandemic is behind us, and a decline in those who believe it is yet to come.
Meanwhile, there was confusion last night around who will pay for the higher-grade masks recommended for use by close contacts. The Health Service Executive took the unusual step of issuing a statement which contradicted earlier comments by Dr Holohan, who suggested that the health service would be providing the masks to people for free.
The HSE said it “currently provides face masks to healthcare settings, residential care settings and test centres, and there is no plan or intention for us to distribute masks more widely”. The Government memo discussed by Ministers on Wednesday explicitly says it is not intended that the State would provide the new masks, according to sources familiar with its contents.
This would result in members of the public having to pay for medical-grade or the more expensive FFP2 respirator masks to abide by the State’s new rules.