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Covid warning Fears Christmas Omicron surge could hit workplaces and frontline services

Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 was warned there could be an estimated 10,000 new Covid cases a day from Christmas Eve onwards

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Dr. Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer and Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Government Buildings, Dublin.

Dr. Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer and Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Government Buildings, Dublin.

Dr. Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer and Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Government Buildings, Dublin.

Government ministers are worried that close contact rules will threaten the viability of businesses and frontline services as Omicron spreads.

Ministers raised concerns with Nphet over the rules which require all close contacts of confirmed cases to restrict movements for five days even if they’ve received a booster vaccine, or 10 days if they have not.

One Government minister already faces Christmas in isolation after contracting Covid-19. Environment Minister and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan confirmed the news yesterday and said he was at home following HSE protocols.

Earlier the Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 was warned there could be an estimated 10,000 new Covid cases a day from Christmas Eve onwards, and each of these people will have an average of 3.1 close contacts.

This means around 41,000 people a day will be told to restrict their movements under the close contact rules.

This could be similar to the UK’s ‘pingdemic’ in July 2021, where a record number of people who had come into contact with an infected person were being asked to self-isolate, most of them having been “pinged” by the National Health Service’s contact-tracing app.

The “pingdemic,” as it was dubbed, brought about huge disruptions for businesses and critical services.

Official advice warns these people: “Do not go to work, unless you work on your own and can completely avoid other people.”

The Government is concerned this will affect front-line workers such as gardaí, the fire brigade and local authorities.

Ministers also fear the newly announced close contacts regime risks closing down some workplaces.

There is significant concern about how the rules will affect factories and warehouses where employees work in close proximity.

The Government’s senior officials’ group has been tasked with monitoring the impact of the new rules on various sectors and will update ministers on any unintended consequences.

A less restrictive close contact system is already in place for healthcare workers.

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Yesterday, one senior minister said other sectors will also need a derogation from the rules. The minister said the close contacts rules “may not be workable”.

“I don’t think the public understands the impact of these rules because this variant is so transmissible it will mean a huge amount of people, in various sectors, will be off work,” the minister added.

Another senior Government source said the close contact rules were a “very real concern” for all sectors and added that frontline services are “very alert” to this.

Under the rules announced by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, anyone who is deemed a close contact will have to restrict movements for five days and take three antigen tests every two days if they have received a booster vaccine more than a week ago.

A person who has not received a booster will be asked to restrict movements for 10 days. The HSE is to develop a testing regime for this category.

The fast-spreading Omicron is now the dominant variant in Ireland, and accounts for 52pc of cases.

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre was notified of 5,124 cases of Covid-19 yesterday, with 436 patients hospitalised, of which 107 were in ICU. There was a surge in cases over the weekend as 7,333 were reported on Saturday.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan insisted Nphet is not planning to recommend new restrictions on schools and hospitality before the end of the year.

Dr Holohan sent a message to Mr Martin seeking to downplay reports Nphet was preparing to “press the nuclear button” on December 30 and advise that schools do not reopen in January and the full closure of pubs and restaurants.

He denied the reports of potential lockdown measures being prepared by Nphet.

However, Dr Holohan said he could not rule out any further restrictions and will keep monitoring the situation closely over the coming weeks.

He told the Taoiseach he was happy to be quoted.

The Taoiseach’s spokesperson said: “There are no plans for a December 30 meeting and no nuclear buttons.

“The leaders and Health Minister met public health on Tuesday, and they discussed the areas where restrictions might apply,” he said.

“On Friday, members of Nphet briefed members of Cabinet and no reference to lockdown plans and they
said they’d meet again on January 6.

“As the Taoiseach said yesterday, there are no guarantees, and they will keep monitoring the situation, but they are heartened with booster progress,” he added.

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