frightening | 

Covid cases could reach 50,000 a day as peak won’t arrive for almost two weeks

‘Trepidation’ over staff shortages in schools and many other sectors
Education Minister Norma Foley will meet with public health officials on Tuesday. Photo: Frank McGrath

Education Minister Norma Foley will meet with public health officials on Tuesday. Photo: Frank McGrath

Senan Molony, Eoghan Moloney, Katherine Donnelly and Fiona Dillon

The surge in Omicron cases sweeping the country will not peak for almost another two weeks, a key meeting was told, plunging the reopening of workplaces after Christmas into huge uncertainty.

Tens of thousands of workers who have Covid, plus close contacts, will be stuck at home as workplaces aim to ramp up after the holidays.

Amid mounting concern, a crunch meeting between public health officials and Education Minister Norma Foley about schools reopening took place yesterday. She was provided with projections that the Omicron infection rate will not peak before January 10 or 12.

The number of cases could reach a spike of 50,000 a day, it is believed, but the minister was told nobody knows for sure because of the rapidity of the surge.

An attendee at the meeting spoke of “a degree of apprehension and trepidation” over what might lie ahead when schools reopen. There were particular fears expressed that there might be a shortage of teachers, matching concerns across many other sectors.

It comes as the latest figures saw 20,110 cases of Covid-19 confirmed, with 682 patients in hospital, of whom 86 were in intensive care units. Health Minister Stephen Donnelly announced an acceleration of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, with people aged between 16 and 29 now being invited to get a booster dose.

From tomorrow , vaccination centres will begin appointment-based clinics for those aged under 30 in designated centres. Additional centres will be offering this service over the coming week. GPs and pharmacists will also be providing appointments.

Some private businesses have already warned they would not be able to open amid staff shortages.

A major hospital group confirmed the majority of its scheduled surgery and out-patient appointments would be deferred, affecting five hospitals. And two third-level colleges have so far postponed exams next week or moved them online.

Amid sharp focus on education, the Taoiseach and other ministers insisted schools will reopen as planned. However, there will be a crucial meeting between Ms Foley and public health officials next Tuesday.

The department told the Irish Independent there is no change to the requirement for people who work in schools and who are identified as close contacts to self-isolate.

With concern mounting about the ability of workplaces across society to operate next week, a new regime of testing and isolating rules were announced on Thursday night.

However, there is confusion about how aspects of the new plan, which focuses on antigen ahead of PCR tests, will operate in relation to the workplace.

Applying for HSE antigen tests will be accepted to apply for Enhanced Illness Benefit, but the status of contacts, and rights of workers who may have an antigen but no PCR result, are still in question.

More than 40,000 people will need to isolate for the coming week, having been told they are confirmed Covid-19 cases over the past two days alone.

Tens of thousands more are close contacts or were diagnosed earlier this week, while the rapid spread of Omicron shows no sign of abating soon.

Business group Ibec said the introduction of shortened isolation periods for critical workers is urgently required, given emerging staff shortages across essential industries.

The reality of dealing with high levels of absent staff hit home at the UL Hospitals Group with the deferral of scheduled surgery and outpatient appointments at five hospitals in Limerick, Clare and Tipperary.

Meanwhile, TU Dublin and Dundalk IT have made changes to exams due to start in the coming weeks, either moving them online or postponing them.

Speculation on some public servants being asked to work despite being close contacts has arisen as a result of a Department of Health announcement on derogations being studied across government to allow public services to go ahead.

The Department of Health said guidance has been in place for 18 months for asymptomatic healthcare workers who are close contacts, allowing them to attend work if certain criteria are met.

The Department of Justice, asked about An Garda Síochána, said there has been no use of any Covid-19 derogation in the justice sector to date. The Department of Education was asked about a derogation for teachers but said it was working “to ensure the ongoing availability of student teachers to support schools when they reopen, in addition to other measures in place to support teacher supply”.

A spokesman for the Taoiseach said: “As Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has said, there is currently no change in the plans to reopen schools.

“Schools have made huge efforts to ensure they remain as safe as possible. Minister Norma Foley has been keeping infection prevention and control measures under constant review and engaged with public health officials over the Christmas period.”

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