The Irish Times view on vaccine policy: reinstating the protective shield

Large-scale booster programme with high take-up levels should depress infection curve substantially towards end of year

So far neither the Government nor its scientific advisers have suggested reintroducing restrictions, although they have been careful not to rule out doing so. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

With 3,726 new cases of Covid-19 confirmed in the State in the last 24 hours, it is clear that the epidemiological trends are still going in the wrong direction. That was not in itself unexpected: the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) warned a number of weeks ago that it did not anticipate a peak in the current wave before mid-November, and at the weekend Taoiseach Micheál Martin referred to the end of November as the current estimate for a stabilisation point. Unlike previous surges, however, this one is not being met with new restrictions on social and economic life. On the contrary, the last of the lingering restrictions are being relaxed: recently nightclubs opened their doors, albeit with conditions, for the first time since the pandemic began.

The difference, of course, is that more than 90 per cent of the population is now fully vaccinated against Covid-19. That has placed a protective shield around the community, substantially lowering the death rate and providing very strong protection against serious illness. In recent weeks, however, the Delta variant has begun to pierce that shield. The jabs continue generally to provide protection against the worst health outcomes, according to the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac), but it has been well-documented that their ability to prevent infection and mild disease wanes over time. This was observed in Israel, where a third-shot booster programme was rapidly introduced. We also know that vaccinated people can transmit the virus.

Adherence to guidance

Hospital Report

So far neither the Government nor its scientific advisers have suggested reintroducing restrictions, although they have been careful not to rule out doing so. Instead their focus is on two areas. The first is ensuring adherence to the existing guidance on mask-wearing and social distancing. The second is on improving vaccine coverage. One element of that is working to persuade the more than 300,000 people who have not yet taken a vaccine to accept it. But the more important task is to boost the protection levels across the vaccinated population. To that end, Niac on Monday recommended booster shots for healthcare workers; the first frontline staff will receive their third jabs at the weekend. The over-60s have already been approved for boosters.

But the situation will get worse before it gets better. If Israel’s experience is replicated here, a large-scale booster programme with high take-up levels (perhaps encouraged by a three-jab rule for admission to indoor hospitality) will depress the infection curve substantially towards the end of the year. In the meantime, however, hospital admissions and deaths will rise at least through this month. The question now is whether the health system can hold out until vaccines can reinstate that protective shield.