Covid restrictions for close contacts of cases are likely to be relaxed before the weekend if the Cabinet gives the go-ahead to proposals from the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, when it meets on Wednesday morning.
Close contacts who have received a booster dose of the vaccine will no longer be required to restrict their movements for five days, a move that Ministers hope will ease pressure on hospitals and other vital services.
The move comes as the Omicron wave sweeps across Europe and Ireland, with Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan estimating that up to 500,000 people here may have been infected last week, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that half the population of western Europe could be infected in the next six to eight weeks.
The Department of Health said 19,290 new cases of the virus were confirmed on Tuesday, though this is widely understood to be a significant underestimate of the true numbers, as many people with symptoms who have had positive antigen tests are not being counted in the department’s official statistics. As of 8am on Tuesday morning there were 1,062 patients in the country’s hospitals, with 92 of those in ICU.
Mr Donnelly confirmed on Tuesday he intends to bring plans to Cabinet that will remove the five-day isolation period for close contacts of confirmed cases if the individual has been given their Covid-19 booster.
“If you have boosted immunity, currently you’re asked to restrict your movements for five days,” Mr Donnelly told Newstalk radio.
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“That requirement would go completely, so no restricted movement if you have boosted immunity. Now, the recommendation is still obviously that there is regular antigen testing for several days. During that period people would also wear the higher-grade masks.”
Earlier Tánaiste Leo Varadkar voiced his support for an easing of the rules. “I do think we need to relax the rules over close contacts, but we need to come up with a way of doing that, that is safe,” he said.
Mr Donnelly said he had received the recommendations on Tuesday afternoon in a new letter, dated January 11th, from Dr Holohan.
Close contacts who have not received a booster and have been in contact with a confirmed Covid-19 case will now have to isolate for seven days.
For those who have tested positive, the isolation period will now be reduced from 10 days to seven for everyone. In addition, any person who has not received a booster shot but who has had Covid-19 in the last three months will not have to restrict their movements for five days if they are a close contact of a confirmed case.
The relaxation is being seen as both a recognition of the extreme pressure on staffing across health and other vital services and as an acknowledgement that Omicron is less severe than previous variants.
In addition, Mr Donnelly said that people who have received a positive Covid-19 antigen test result will no longer need to receive a confirmatory PCR test.
Up until now a positive antigen result required people to get a PCR test to confirm the positive result, but the change will free up space in the testing system.
The WHO said that there were more than seven million new cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 across Europe in the first week of January, more than doubling in two weeks.
WHO Europe director Dr Hans Kluge said on Tuesday that 26 countries in its region had reported that more than 1 per cent of their populations were being infected with Covid-19 each week, warning there was a “closing window of opportunity” for countries to prevent their health systems from being overwhelmed.
He cited estimates from the Institute of Health Metrics at the University of Washington that projected half of the population in western Europe would be infected with Covid-19 in the next six to eight weeks.