How can we avoid having 450 Covid patients in intensive care units come Christmas Day?

Eilish O’Regan

A declaration of national lockdown was the ultimate Covid-19 shock tactic to get the nation’s attention during the pandemic.

But how do you follow that now, with everything open and most people plotting their own course on how to live with the virus?

New Government measures, aimed at curbing the dangerous spread of Covid and averting up to 450 patients being seriously ill with the disease in intensive care on Christmas week, may end up falling short of triggering the level of response needed from an exhausted public.

It did not help that, despite the high stakes, the measures appear to have been hastily put together and are less than crisp and clear.

Working from home

The recommendation now is that people should work from home “unless it is necessary”.

The rationale behind this is evident and immediately means fewer people are on the move, while the chance of picking up or spreading the virus among work colleagues is minimised.

The problem is that without some form of enforcement or sanction, it may be difficult at this point to reverse to a great degree the phased and staggered return to the workplace which started in early October.

New rules for household contacts

Household close contacts of a confirmed Covid-19 case, who are fully vaccinated and have no symptoms, must now restrict their movements for five days. That means no work or school. They have to test themselves three times with a rapid antigen tests. The HSE will send a pack of free tests to the home.

It has led to confusion among workers such as GPs who fear they might have to close their surgery for five days. It emerged yesterday that there may be a derogation for some healthcare workers – but how this will apply is unclear.

Cost of antigen tests

People who are involved in higher-risk activities, going to nightclubs, bars, indoor contact sports or visiting a number of houses are being told to take two antigen tests a week. However, the cost of these tests remain a hurdle – though Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said work was under way to subsidise them. He ruled out making them free.

Given the billions of euro spent on Covid, the logic of this is difficult to understand. A single antigen test can vary in cost from €4.49 to €7.95.

There is no time to lose in the fight against this growing wave – yet we still delay in making them more affordable.

Midnight curfew

From tonight, all nightclubs, bars and restaurants will have to shut at midnight. It will probably mitigate some spread. But the virus does not just come out after midnight.

Behavioural experts in other countries where curfews have been enforced say it is one way of sending a message to younger age groups – who may not be listening to public health messages – that the Covid situation is serious.

On its own it may not have much impact, but scaling up inspections around the Covid pass would appear to be essential in the coming weeks. The extension of the Covid pass to cinemas and theatres will help, but there are questions around why events such as sports matches were not included.

Booster shots

The extension of booster shots to the over-50s, people with underlying conditions in all ages, and to all residents in nursing homes was given the go-ahead. But the pace of the booster roll-out so far has been slower than expected. There are 161,000 people in the country over 80 – yet only 131,200 of these have got the jab so far. Another 336,000 people are aged 70 to 79 – and as of Tuesday, only 114,200 were boosted.

Around 90,000 of 305,000 healthcare workers have got a booster, while 59,000 of the immuno-compromised have been jabbed with a third vaccine.

The long-suffering 60-69 age group, who received the AstraZeneca vaccine and had to wait until mid-July to August for their second dose, have received the least amount of booster vaccines. Just 22,200 of these have been boosted.

The booster jab must be given five to six months after a second dose. Although some of delay is due to people themselves, the HSE has questions to answer.

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