Antigen tests and extension of vaccine cert on Cabinet agenda, Taoiseach says

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said recommendations from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) for increased work from home restrictions in the face of a fourth wave of coronavirus throughout Europe will provide the main focus of discussion at Monday evening’s Cabinet sub-committee meeting on Covid-19.

He also said the meeting would look at the wider rollout of antigen testing in society and the Government would also look at ways to subsidise antigen tests to make them more affordable for people during the winter months.

The meeting, expected to start at 6pm, will also hold discussions around extending the digital Covid certificate to other premises, as well as the booster vaccine programme.

However, the Taoiseach pointed out that the advice the Government has received in relation to those two measures were less specific. His comments suggested that no definitive position might be reached on those at the meeting.

Asked if a general retrenchment back to more lockdown measures might be on the cards given the sharp increase in case numbers, the Taoiseach said that would not be the case.

“We are in a much different position this year than we were last year because of the power of vaccination. If we didn’t have vaccination, and the level of vaccination that we have, we would be in lockdown. Right now given the number of cases. There would have been a far higher conversion to hospitalisation and intensive care and mortality rates, of that there is no doubt.”

He said nonetheless the situation was now serious. “We have a much higher level of non Covid respiratory illnesses, particularly among children. That’s creating pressures not only here but across Europe where there is essentially a fourth wave.”

The Taoiseach was speaking at the opening of a new 109-house estate, Gort Fionbarra, in Navan, Co Meath developed by the housing body, Tuath.

Speaking on the Covid-19 situation, he said the rollout of the booster programme was key and that the data from the over-80s cohort showed the positive impact of the booster jab on suppressing the virus.

Saying the State’s capacity to carry out PCR testing was strong, he said that the increased roll-out of antigen testing was also an important addition.

He said the Cabinet would make decisions in relation to the wider deployment of antigen testing.

“We certainly would support subsidisation of antigen tests and making them more affordable essentially, for people over the coming period and particularly getting through the winter period. I think that will be important,” he said.

On extending the Digital Covid-19 Vaccine Certificate to gyms and hairdressers and other parts of society, Mr Martin said Nphet’s advice on that had not been specific, unlike the advice in relation to the workplace.

“Behaviour is key, obviously. As society reopens that reduces that level of compliance and behaviour changes, understandably. I think we have to adjust our behaviours both individually and collectively as groups as families,” he said.

Mr Martin, asked about the decision of the Austrian government to impose lockdown on unvaccinated people said he did not anticipate that happening in Ireland. He said that the vaccination rate in Ireland was 93-94 per cent while it was only 64 to 65 per cent in Austria.

He said that in addition to the higher age cohorts, the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) was also examining the issue of giving a second booster jab to those who had received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Asked if he was impatient with the decision-making process in Niac, Mr Martin said that its experts had very serious obligations in respect of the decisions it made.

“We have to be practical, pragmatic, balanced and reasonable in terms of what works on the ground. The bottom line for us all is that we have to reduce socialisation because, curiously, that would have the biggest impact on getting numbers down. We have to look at that individually and collectively as a society,” he said.

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