Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he is “very worried” and “apprehensive” about the “sheer scale” of spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant.
Speaking on radio on Saturday morning, Mr Martin said the number of cases of the variant was doubling every few days and it “could well be” that the worst of the pandemic has yet to been seen.
“I’m apprehensive in terms of what this might mean in terms of the sheer scale of infection, volume of cases and the great unknown at the moment – which is why we can’t take risks – the great unknown being, how severe is this in terms of requiring hospitalisations and ICUs and just damaging people in terms of health,” he said.
However, Mr Martin said he had always been an optimist and in tackling the spread of Omicron “the combination of booster and behaviour will matter”.
The Taoiseach was speaking after it was announced that new Covid restrictions will come into operation on Monday and he said that he recognised there was a lot of “dissolution and devastation” especially amongst businesses who would be affected.
Pubs and restaurants will now close at 8pm instead of 5pm which was advised by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).
Both Mr Martin and Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said the new restrictions were “precautionary” as modelling produced by Nphet and presented to the leaders of the Coalition suggested that there could be as many as 30,000 cases a day in a “pessimistic” scenario.
Mr Martin on Saturday urged people to use antigen tests before going to social events and while he acknowledged Nphet had argued against the widespread reliance on antigen tests, he said he was supportive of their use.
In terms of people making plans for social contacts “a positive antigen test is a very valuable thing”, Mr Martin said.
However, the Taoiseach did not advocate widespread distribution of free antigen tests to the general population. He said supermarkets had reduced the price of the tests significantly and that antigen tests had been made available free in a number of cases to sectors of the population, including to third-level students.
Speaking on the Brendan O’Connor show on RTÉ Radio 1 Mr Martin said it would be “a challenge” but that he was confident schools would reopen in January as it appears numbers have “stabilised” in schools and the vaccination scheme was being rolled out to a “best-in-the-world standard”.
Between antigen and PCR, some 350,000 tests a week were being carried out, he said. However, Mr Martin said the positivity rate had risen to 18 per cent in recent days, up from 13 per cent “a week or two ago”.
The Taoiseach also addressed Irish people living in the United Kingdom and said it was “ok to come home”, despite the significant case numbers. He urged these people to consider getting a booster and antigen test before they return home.
Among the measures announced yesterday, it was also outlined that all passengers coming into Ireland are now advised to use antigen tests on a daily basis for a period of five consecutive days after their arrival. People arriving into Ireland from overseas will be required to have an antigen or PCR test in line with their vaccination or recovery status.
Attendance at outdoor events is also to be limited to 50 per cent of venue capacity or 5,000 people, whichever is lower, meaning some major sporting events over Christmas could be curtailed or cancelled.
Mr Martin confirmed proof of a booster vaccine will be include on Covid passes in the new year and said this will be essential for ease of travel across Europe.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid this morning tweeted that there have been more than 1.46 million boosters administered.
“Yesterday, over 55,000 people received a vaccine. Almost 250,000 vaccines administered from Monday to Friday, this week. A great response once again from the Irish public to strengthen our protection,” he said.
From Sunday, December 19th, people aged 40 to 49 who have already completed their primary course of Covid-19 vaccine will be eligible for a booster vaccine, following guidance from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee.
People over 40 can attend designated walk-in clinic or wait until they receive a text message from the HSE with a scheduled appointment.
Dr Colm Henry, chief clinical officer with the HSE said: “I am urging all those eligible for their Covid booster vaccine to avail of it. We want the protection provided by the booster to be as robust as possible over the winter months.”
Dr Henry added: “We have multiple channels to access a Covid-19 vaccine, and I am making a public call to those who remain unvaccinated to take this opportunity as soon as possible in order to ensure they are protected from serious illness from Covid-19.”