Vaccine registration to open for people aged 30-34, as experts to examine use of antigen test

Taoiseach says vaccinating younger people with AZ, J&J not central to reopening delay

(Left to right) Minister of State Peter Burke, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan and Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien are pictured at the launch of the National Marine Planning Framework in Dún Laoghaire on Thursday. Photograph: Maxwells

Antigen testing could facilitate an earlier reopening of indoor hospitality, the head of the Government’s expert group on rapid testing has said, as the Minister for Health announced vaccine registration has opened for the next age cohort.

The news came as the Taoiseach said that advice from the State’s immunisation group to make a greater number of vaccines available to younger people was not central to the Government’s decision to delay the next phase of reopening.

The Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly told the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party on Wednesday night that modelling from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) did not include changes made by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) to allow younger people to be given AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines.

Cabinet sources said they were under the impression that it had been part of the Nphet modelling, which has predicted up to 700,000 Covid-19 cases by the end of September in the worst-case scenario.


Speaking on Thursday morning, Mr Martin said he was surprised by reports that Cabinet members were unhappy about Niac advice not factoring into this.

“A substantial memo went to all Cabinet Ministers. The Niac advice, and this should be obvious to all, is a response to the Delta variant. It was not central to our decision last Tuesday, it is because of the fact that Delta is spreading so dramatically, that is why the chief medical officer wrote to Niac to say: ‘look, the balance of risk has shifted here’. What you seed in July you reap in August and September and that presents a real challenge for us.”

He said delaying the reopening of indoor hospitality “was the cautious and correct decision.”

The Taoiseach said the idea of using vaccine certs to allow people to dine indoors was first raised informally on Sunday.

“The CMO on Sunday would have said in his view that he felt we should look at vaccination, but Government policy was of a view, as late as May 20th, that we would not use a domestic vaccine for access to domestic services.

“The advice came on Monday evening and in fairness to Nphet and all concerned, they had to accelerate their advice.”

In relation to potential changes to the vaccination programme allowing more younger people to be jabbed more quickly, Mr Martin said there are around 100,000 Janssen (Johnson&Johnson) vaccinations in storage, around 40,000 in pharmacies and 80,000 due in July.

Around 35,000 AstraZeneca doses are due next week and 37,000 are due the week after.

The vaccine portal for people between the ages of 30 and 34 will open towards the end of next week, the Mr Donnelly said.

The vaccine taskforce met with Dr Tony Holohan on Wednesday to go through “practicalities of the advice”, Mr Martin said.

He said the link between case numbers and hospitalisations in terms of the Delta variant “remains to be determined”.

Mr Martin said Nphet were concerned that if there are high numbers of cases it could “break through the wall” of vaccination.

Earlier reopening

Meanwhile, infectious diseases expert Professor Mary Horgan, who is to head the Government’s expert group on rapid testing, has said that antigen testing could “potentially” lead to an earlier reopening of society.

Prof Horgan told RTÉ radio’s News at One that the Antigen Testing Group would examine how rapid testing could be best deployed to allow the reopening of society.

Part of the work of the group will involve drawing up national minimum standards for such tests, she explained, along with looking at a platform for a national infrastructure.

The HSE has supported a number of rapid-testing initiatives already, she added, in healthcare settings, meat plants and in education. “They really have been supportive of rapid testing in certain settings.”

Part of the remit for the Antigen Testing Group will be establishing good structure, good guidelines and good education policies on the tests, said Prof Horgan.

There was no debate that PCR testing was more sensitive, but antigen testing was effective in identifying people who were positive and they could be then warned not to leave home to go to work or college. It was an additional layer of protection in the fight against Covid.

However, it was important that people use the right test at the right time, she cautioned.

Other countries had been very good at sharing information about their experience of antigen testing and that was a big help, she said.

Ireland was now two to three weeks behind the UK, in relation to the progress of the Delta variant, so it was important to examine what happens there.

Thirty per cent of the UK cases of the Delta variant had been detected by antigen testing, so there was a need to move forward and not look back and to focus on rolling out antigen testing.

The most important message she said was that if anyone was offered a vaccine, they should take it as it offered the best protection against the Delta variant.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times