No further Covid restrictions will be imposed by the Government this week, as Ministers and public health officials wait until at least the end of next week before deciding if further measures are required to tackle the fourth wave.
Ministers and officials said they saw tentative signs the huge recent spike in infections, hospital cases and ICU admissions was beginning to abate, though Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said it was too early to be definitive.
Meanwhile, plans for the State to subsidise antigen tests, bringing the cost down to €2-€3 each, have been further delayed and may not now be ready for approval until next week.
It’s understood that officials in the Department of Enterprise raised concerns that the subsidised price for pharmacies – which would have been in the region of €3-€4 per test – was about the same price supermarket discounters were already selling them for, therefore making the market price of a test no cheaper for consumers. The department is in touch with retailers on mechanisms for subsidising, with an aim of pricing between €1 and €2 per test.
While acute concerns about the situation in hospitals remain, the Government has adopted a wait-and-see attitude on the imposition of further restrictions.
Speaking to reporters last night, Mr Varadkar said it appeared the positivity rate of Covid-19 tests was “starting to level off”, but that it was too early to be sure. “We will as a Government seek to avoid imposing extreme restrictions if we can,” he said.
There was no discussion of Covid-19 at Cabinet on Tuesday, with Ministers afterwards saying there was no appetite “for more extreme or severe measures”. One Cabinet source said any assumption that tighter restrictions would necessarily follow last week’s measures was incorrect. One person familiar with discussions on the issue said Ministers believed the approach to the fourth wave should not be the same as earlier waves
On Tuesday night, the Department of Health reported 3,666 new Covid cases. There were 638 Covid patients in hospital, down 46 from Monday, of whom 130 were in ICU, an increase of four.
Chief medical officer Tony Holohan told opposition parties the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) was unlikely to recommend further measures following its meeting this week. In a briefing for opposition spokespeople, Dr Holohan said the focus would be on evaluating existing measures, but that while he was hopeful, there could be no guarantees given the current trajectory of the disease.
It's understood Dr Holohan and Robert Watt, the secretary general of the Department of Health, briefed officials in Government Buildings after they met the Opposition. Government sources indicated their concern was most acute in relation to ICUs, with less worry about the numbers in hospital and current daily cases diagnosed.
There was concern, however, in the Government about the delay in bringing forward a plan to provide subsidised antigen tests to the public. Last week, the Government said it would broaden the use of the tests, which are quicker than the more accurate PCR test and can be self-administered. However, efforts to finalise the plan are continuing. It was originally expected before the weekend, but Ministers were surprised when it did not materialise at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.
Mr Varadkar said a memo on plans to subsidise the price of antigen tests down to €2-€3 per test could be ready to go to Cabinet towards the end of this week or early next week.
While Dr Holohan has repeatedly warned about misuse of the tests, sources say that complications arose when retail outlets expressed their interest in taking part in a scheme, whereas previously it had been expected that only pharmacies would sell the subsidised tests.