Rise of Delta variant will not affect summer reopening plans in Republic

About 25% of all new cases seen in Northern Ireland are of the Delta variant

People dine outdoors in Temple Bar, Dublin as Ireland begins to reopen. Photograph: Tom Honan

People dine outdoors in Temple Bar, Dublin as Ireland begins to reopen. Photograph: Tom Honan

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Plans for a wider reopening of society on July 5th will not be affected by the possibility the highly transmissible Delta variant will spread in Ireland, senior Cabinet figures have confirmed.

The new variant, first identified in India, is a cause of increasing concern within the Government as it tackles the Covid-19 pandemic. It is at least 60 per cent more transmissible than the original Alpha variant.

The interim director of the North’s Public Health Agency, Dr Stephen Bergin, said that while the overall numbers were low, about a quarter of all the new cases seen in Northern Ireland were of the Delta variant.

The incidence level of the variant is much lower in the Republic, although it is expected to rise during the summer.

Further reducing the gap between the first and second doses of AstraZeneca vaccine in Ireland would allow current plans to lift restrictions to remain intact, senior sources said.

The State’s high-level vaccine taskforce met on Monday to discuss reducing the interval from 12 weeks to eight weeks and to discuss the administration of vaccines by pharmacists.

Sources said people who received their first dose of AstraZeneca, including those in their 60s, would begin receiving texts in the coming weeks informing them of earlier second doses than had been scheduled.

Vaccine deliveries

The plans have been bolstered by anticipated large deliveries of AstraZeneca vaccines by the end of June. Large deliveries of Pfizer vaccines are also expected, with 317,000 due to arrive next week.

That will lead to nine weeks’ worth of vaccination being compressed into five, in what is a significant acceleration of the State programme.

An announcement is also expected this week about opening the registration portal for people in their 30s.

Covid-19 vaccines are “highly effective” in preventing hospital admission with the Delta variant of the disease, according to new data from Public Health England. Both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs are just as good at coping with the new variant as the Alpha variant, the data suggests.

The Delta variant will form the basis of discussions at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting and will also be discussed by the National Public Health Emergency Team later this week.

Self-isolation periods

The Cabinet is expected to decide to increase the self-isolation period for travellers from Britain from five to 10 days for partially vaccinated people. Fully vaccinated passengers will face no quarantine.

Senior Government sources dismissed the suggestion the Delta variant would delay reopening. “The narrative that our reopening will slow down is not true,” said one Minister. “I don’t believe Delta will affect our reopening plan.”

The UK was at the final stages of reopening, which included the reopening of nightclubs, the source said.

“We are not at that stage yet so you are not comparing apples to apples,” they said. “We have the benefit in Ireland in that there is a shorter time period between the first and second dose of AstraZeneca, unlike the UK where they pushed out the period in order to vaccinate as many people as possible.”

British prime minister Boris Johnson on Monday delayed the lifting of remaining restrictions in England until July 19th amid concerns about the spread of the Delta variant. He said postponing the reopening would give the National Health Service time to deliver second vaccination doses to more adults.

Meanwhile, visa-free travel between Ireland and 12 countries with variants of concern will be restored on Tuesday. Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys will inform Cabinet she proposes to lift emergency visa requirements for Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, South Africa, Suriname and Uruguay.

For Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Suriname the lifting applies for transit visas only - for those passing through the state in order to get to another country. Visas are otherwise required from these countries.

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