A requirement by the UK for PCR tests for all overseas arrivals will not apply to the Common Travel Area.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney welcomed the announcement on Sunday. The CTA applies to Britain, the island of Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands and effectively allows unrestricted travel.
This means no Covid-19 test or quarantine will be required by a passenger if they are travelling within the CTA and have not been outside the CTA in the previous 10 days.
Under the UK’s plans announced on Saturday evening everyone entering the UK – other than from the CTA – will have to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.
If you were trying to put together lots of really bad mutations, Omicron would be it
The wearing of face masks in shops and on public transport will become compulsory in England from Tuesday.
A number of countries have introduced travel bans and restrictions on passengers from southern African countries in a bid to contain the new variant.
The Irish Government is to consider the steps taken by the UK and a senior source said all responses to the variant were now under review.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) is “considering further required measures” as countries move to prevent the spread of Omicron, a new variant of coronavirus.
Early evidence suggests Omicron has an increased re-infection risk, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has designated the variant as being of concern.
In a statement on Saturday evening, the Department of Health said the Nphet Epidemiological Team is meeting regularly this weekend to monitor the developing situation in Europe after several countries confirmed cases of the new variant, which has been deemed “of concern” by WHO.
Nphet on Saturday said it was aware of new cases of Omicron in the UK, Italy, Germany and Belgium even though it had not been formally notified by European Alert Systems as yet.
“The Nphet Epidemiological Team are meeting regularly over the weekend to monitor the situation and are currently considering further required measures,” it said.
It added that a series of initial measures have been put in place to mitigate against the arrival of this variant to Ireland.
These include an emergency brake for travel to and from seven southern African countries deemed of concern in respect of the variant.
People arriving here from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Mozambique will have to present “not-detected” pre-flight PCR result, regardless of vaccination status, and quarantine at home for 10 days, undergoing a further two PCR tests.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has changed its travel advisory to “avoid non-essential travel” to these countries.
“Regulations are being drawn up urgently to give effect to the new travel and home quarantine policies,” said the Nphet statement.
Nphet member Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, has said that if Omicron is more transmissible than the Delta variant, then it is a “matter of time” before the new variant arrives in Ireland.
Dr de Gascun told the Sunday Business Post there would be a ramping up of genome sequencing, and every positive Covid-19 sample since November 1st would be screened for Omicron.
Speaking about the new variant, Dr de Gascun told the newspaper: “It is more different to the original Wuhan virus than any of the other variants. It is almost like something Dr Evil would construct on an island lair. If you were trying to put together lots of really bad mutations, this would be it.”
Dr de Gascun said, in his view, hospital numbers would need to fall below 200, and ICU figures would need to drop beneath 100, if new Covid-19 restrictions were to be avoided in the coming weeks. To avoid further restrictions in the hospitality sector, he said, infections would soon have to fall dramatically.
In the Republic, 4,791 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed on Saturday morning. At 8pm, 542 Covid-19 patients were in hospital with the virus; the latest data on ICU figures, taken at 11.30am on Saturday, indicated there were 121 people in intensive care with the disease.
Hospitalisations were down by 149 on the peak of the fourth wave, which occurred on November 22nd, when there were 685 people in hospital. The number of patients in ICU peaked on Wednesday at 132.
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he “fully endorses” the recent recommendation by Nphet that indoor gatherings for children should be avoided for the next fortnight.
Acknowledging that the measure would be challenging for children, Mr Martin told the Sunday Independent newspaper it would be reviewed over the next two weeks. “I anticipate this will be short term,” he said.