New restrictions being considered to control Covid-19 over Christmas

Nphet to meet ‘mindful of Delta and the uncertainty around the Omicron variant’

Pupils in third class at St Etchen’s National School in Kinnegad, Co Westmeath, on the first day the wearing of face masks in primary schools became mandatory. Photograph: Damien Eagers

Pupils in third class at St Etchen’s National School in Kinnegad, Co Westmeath, on the first day the wearing of face masks in primary schools became mandatory. Photograph: Damien Eagers

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Public health officials will consider new restrictions on Thursday as part of an effort to keep Covid-19 under control over the Christmas period.

Several officials said they expect the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) will discuss whether to recommend curbs at its meeting on Thursday, given ongoing high levels of infection and the still-unknown impact of the Omicron variant.

It is not expected that harsh lockdown-style measures will form a part of discussions, however, with emphasis instead on curbing socialising and reducing crowding in hospitality settings.

Such an approach could see capacity limits for indoor hospitality settings advised, restrictions on booking sizes and reduced opening hours, or enhanced use of the Covid cert. Advice on household visits is also likely to be considered.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told his Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting he was “sceptical” that imposing new restrictions was necessary, as the disease was tracking optimistic projections.

He pointed out, however, that coronavirus cases remained at a high level and more people would be socialising around Christmas. Mr Varadkar told Nphet on Monday it should develop a contingent set of additional curbs to be deployed if the situation worsened, rather than enforcing new rules now, it is understood.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin told his Fianna Fáil party that a combination of “vigilance, reduced socialisation and an accelerated booster campaign” was needed.

There are concerns in political circles that harsher restrictions could be recommended by Nphet after last week’s unanticipated measures targeting children’s activities.

First case

It comes as the State confirmed its first case of the Omicron variant, with the US also recording its first incidence.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said Nphet would be meeting on Thursday to consider whether further restrictions were necessary, “mindful of Delta and the uncertainty around the Omicron variant”.

“If we could see extensive use of the vaccine pass, whether mandated or voluntary, all of that would give us greater assurance in relation to protection and prevention of transmission,” he said.

Nothing should be “inferred” at this stage about further recommendations from Nphet, Dr Holohan added.

While cases have slowed and are stable they are at a very high number, Dr Holohan said, and this leaves the country exposed to the results of a potential increase in socialisation around Christmas, as well as the uncertainty around Omicron.

Officials are expected to discuss plans to track the spread of the new variant, which are likely to be hampered by a lack of genome sequencing capacity.

The National Virus Reference Laboratory had hoped to rely on information from PCR testing to identify Omicron cases. However, its director Dr Cillian de Gascun acknowledged there is a “lack of association” between the information provided by the test and Omicron cases.

Only one of the first eight samples identified through PCR testing as potential Omicron cases actually turned out to involve the new variant. Current capacity only allows for 5 per cent of cases to be sequenced.

There were backbench calls at both the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parliamentary party meetings for the restoration of the full rates of the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS), which were cut this week, though no commitment on this was offered by senior Coalition figures.

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