Cabinet has agreed to relax the rules on close contacts of Covid-19 cases, clearing the way for thousands of people to return to workplaces.
Ministers agreed to proposals from Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly that close contacts of confirmed cases no longer need to restrict their movements for five days, once they have had a booster shot.
It is understood that the measures will come into force at midnight on Thursday, and should enable thousands of people who were staying at home to return to work.
The changes come after the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) recommended acceptance of advice from the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), which recommended a relaxation of the rule for countries whose health systems were under severe stress from staff shortages.
On his way into Cabinet on Wednesday morning, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said: “The peak hasn’t yet been reached, the public health authorities anticipate that we will reach the peak within the next week or two.
“One cannot be definitive or certain about that, we have to be very vigilant about Covid and about Omicron because over a thousand people are in hospital and one doesn’t go into hospital unless you’re sick.
“So we do understand that this is a very dangerous virus.”
He said the “best weapon we have” is to get vaccinated and to follow the public health guidelines.
Earlier, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan welcomed the advice from chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan that restriction rules for boosted close contacts be relaxed.
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Mr Ryan told Newstalk Breakfast that the move would be of benefit to employers and to their staff and it had come about as a result of recommendations from the ECDC.
The system in the last few weeks had been “confusing”, he said, and this move would provide clarity.
However, Mr Ryan warned that the virus could not be “let rip”. He said the number of patients with Covid in ICUs was “holding steady”, and Ireland has the second-lowest death rate from Covid in Europe, “because the vaccine works”. The metric of measurement had to be the number of hospitalisations not the number of cases, he added.
When asked how employers would know if staff had been fully vaccinated and had received their booster if they could not ask employees, Mr Ryan said that it was a matter of trust between employer and employee.
People had been vaccinated for their own good and out of a sense of pride that they were protecting others, he said.
Restrictions with regard to the hospitality sector and the current closing time of 8pm would remain in place until they were reviewed later in the month, said Mr Ryan. He said he was confident that such restrictions could be lifted at that time as this appeared to be “a shorter wave”.
Earlier, professor of immunology at Dublin City University Christine Loscher expressed concern about a “blanket” easing of close contact requirements.
“I’m surprised there is a blanket change. It’s a little bit all or nothing,” Prof Loscher told Newstalk Breakfast.
Prof Loscher said she understood the need to change the rules with regard to the workplace, especially for essential services, but said she was concerned because the Omicron variant was much more transmissible and she would not like to see the change have an impact on case numbers.
Antigen tests would be crucial “if this is the way to go”, she said, and a test would need to be done every day.
Prof Loscher said there was not yet information on how many close contacts had turned into cases, what percentage and in what settings.
Every single public health decision to date had been made on the basis of scientific evidence, she said. “That does not seem to have happened here.”
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.
Mr Donnelly on Wednesday said the 10 millionth dose of Covid-19 vaccine was being administered in the State, praising the number as a “huge milestone” in the vaccination programme.
According to the latest available figures, there are 1,055 patients in the country’s hospitals with Covid-19, with 92 of those in ICU.