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Q&A What makes Omicron variant so deadly, and how will restrictions affect us?

Experts say the timing of the emergence of the variant couldn't have been worse

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Visitors to Ireland must take an antigen test

Visitors to Ireland must take an antigen test

Visitors to Ireland must take an antigen test

Why are we here again? I’m sick of it. Omicron. There is huge concern this new strain is going to rip through society and spread at a vicious rate. The timing couldn’t be worse. It’s a highly transmissible strain coming at a time when we all mingle the most. Restrictions to try and prevent that spread are seen as a necessary evil.

But why?
You’ve actually heard it all before. Essentially it all comes back to hospitals. We have a health service that isn’t capable of standing up to waves of infection that could overwhelm intensive care capacity. We have too few ICU beds and insufficient resources to cope with a scenario experts fear could be worse than the wave which hit us after Christmas last year.

Do they really think it will be so bad?
Yes. Now admittedly we weren’t testing for Omicron a few weeks ago because we didn’t know about it then, but since they have started testing it went from representing 11pc of cases at the start of last week to more than a third of all cases yesterday. It has ripped through parts of Europe already.

So what are the new restrictions?
Basically anything you like doing with other people is likely to be curtailed in some way. Restaurants, bars and the like must shut at 8pm. In fact no indoor events can take place after 8pm, except for a wedding reception.

Really? So we can still have weddings?
Yes, but capacity is limited to 100.

What about midnight mass for Christmas?
That’s OK too, but that’s it then.

Why are weddings and mass OK?
I think that’s a concession. How often do people go to mass after 8pm? With weddings, many people had already made their bookings and with so many weddings cancelled already over the past two years it would be hard to tell any couple again that they can’t be with friends and family to mark the occasion.

Is that it then?
No, there’s more. Any indoor event before 8pm is limited to 50pc capacity, unless the usual capacity is huge. Then it is capped at 1,000.

But I can still go to the races for Christmas?
Possibly, but it’s hard to see what will happen to any tickets bought before now because outdoor events have 50pc limits on capacity too. This is different for huge venues like stadiums, where the capacity is now capped at 5,000.

What about spending time with the family?
Rules for gatherings at home have not changed. Four households can mix indoors at one time.

What if you have someone coming home for Christmas?
Again there’s a household capacity limit, but it’s hard to see how that is going to be enforced for Christmas visits. If relatives are coming from abroad there are other things to be aware of. All people arriving into Ireland from overseas will be required to have an antigen or PCR test. They are also advised to conduct antigen testing on a daily basis for a period of five consecutive days.

Why didn’t they close the schools?
Remember ‘schools are safe’? Well, it was thought that if the schools are closed for the days leading up to Christmas — when parents were expecting to be able to send them to school — it might create issues around day care and hinder those parents who are working. There is also still a strong belief that being in school is safe, because the children operate in pods and public health measures are in place there that aren’t in place at home.

Surely the vaccines should be helping us?
Well they are, but not enough people have been boosted yet so there is a big drive to ramp that up quickly. The reality is, though, that the new variant is already here and spreading, so needles need to be in arms as soon as possible.

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So they do protect against Omicron?
It seems so. Studies show a booster is between 70pc and 75pc effective at protecting against the new strain.

So someone without a booster has less than 75pc protection?
Yes. It wanes over time, but having two doses is still seen as a solid defence against getting very sick if you do contract the virus.

And what do I do if I get sick over Christmas and think it’s Covid?
The same thing you would do if you got Covid at any other time. Stay at home, book a PCR test and limit your movements.

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