Government is moving to exempt key workers in public services and utilities from self-isolation requirements in some circumstances as fears grow about the impact of the Omicron wave on essential services.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has asked officials to draw up “immediate contingency planning for the coming period, including risks associated with Covid-19- related absenteeism”, his spokesman said on Wednesday evening.
“Each sector will assess and plan to mitigate risks of transmission and absenteeism affecting critical services or infrastructure. The identification of critical workers/work areas will continue to inform close contact rules and any derogations which might apply,” the spokesman said.
With 6,307 new cases announced on Wednesday evening, officials believe the Omicron variant is now beginning to show up in daily case numbers. Sources across Government expect that significant numbers of cases will be diagnosed in the next number of weeks – upwards of 10,000 a day. If close contacts are forced to isolate it could put pressure on services.
There are already derogations in place within the health service for key staff, but Government sources said the Coalition wants to examine derogations for other key workers like gardaí, fire service personnel, prison officers and those involved in infrastructure and public utilities, such as water services and power supply.
There are “definitely fears there could be large-scale absenteeism”, one Government source said, pointing to high levels of Covid-linked absenteeism in healthcare in London, which is in the grip of an Omicron wave.
Ministers hope the booster campaign – allied to the restrictions now in place – will avoid a worst-case scenario, but there is an expectation a sharp deterioration is imminent, which may necessitate further measures next week.
Northern Ireland recorded its highest daily number of new Covid-19 infections on Wednesday, with an additional 3,231 cases of the virus confirmed by the North’s department of health.
Minister for Arts and Culture Catherine Martin warned that the Government will have to keep restrictions under review on a day-by-day basis after the Christmas period.
“The only thing that is certain is the uncertainty of it all. I can’t see any changes before Christmas, I know the Taoiseach said that, but you can see how quickly it is changing with Omicron day to day. A few weeks ago we had not heard of it and look where we are now. I think we just have to take each day at a time, keep an eye on the ICU numbers the hospitalisations.”
The Taoiseach said the vaccination programme for children would open for registration in early January, while high-risk children were already getting their doses. He said the Government would treat some parents’ fears sensitively, but stressed that vaccination was a normal part of childhood.
“I mean historically with vaccines, we’ve all experienced being vaccinated as children through a range of vaccines and vaccination programmes, so it’s not something new,” Mr Martin told reporters at Government Buildings in a pre-Christmas press conference.
“So all in all I think we will be recommending strongly that parents do facilitate their children getting vaccinated but we understand the sensibilities involved.”
Meanwhile, interventions to support businesses are not expected to reverse recent improvements in the projected budget deficit for the year. The deficit for the year is now expected to come in between €9 billion and €10 billion, an improvement from the forecast €13.2 billion at budget time. The ongoing bonanza in corporation tax receipts is the main driver of the reduction.