End in sight | 

Government instruct Nphet to review restrictive close contact rules for 'boosted'

The Government is hoping to end the need for close contacts who are boosted isolate, as long as they wear a mask in public
Dr Tony Holohan (Julien Behal/PA)

Dr Tony Holohan (Julien Behal/PA)

Philip Ryan and Paul Hyland

The end is in sight for restrictive Covid-19 close contact rules for people who have received booster vaccines after the Government leaders instructed the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to review the measures.

The Government is hoping to follow the example of the US where the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended ending the need for close contacts who are boosted and showing no symptoms to isolate – as long as they wear a mask in public.

The American rules are in sharp contrast to the measures in Ireland where close contacts are required to isolate for five days even if they have no symptoms of the virus and are fully vaccinated.

They are also asked to do three antigen tests during this period.

Those who have not received a booster vaccine are required to isolate for 10 days and undergo five antigen tests.

Easing or abolishing the need for close contacts to restrict movements will ease pressure on businesses and frontline services where staff shortages have become a major issue since the rules were introduced.

Nphet is to meet tomorrow to examine the Government’s request to change the isolation rules and it is hoped Coalition leaders can make a decisions soon after receiving the advice.

Speaking before a meeting of the Government leaders, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said close-contact advice had led to staffing shortages across the country.

Mr Varadkar said there was a “risk” that during January, public services and “critical infrastructure” would “come under pressure” because close contacts were being forced to stay at home.

“I think that’s something that’s going to require further consideration because whatever you do, when it comes to public health guidance and public health rules… you want to avoid doing more harm than good,” he said.

Ahead of the party leaders meeting, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan told Taoiseach Micheál Martin he did not believe new Covid-19 restrictions would be necessary this week.

However, Dr Holohan said the Government needed to be ready to respond to any significant changes to the transmission of virus. On foot of the Taoiseach’s briefing with the CMO, Mr Martin and Mr Varadkar, along with Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, decided against introducing changes.

This included tchoosing to stick with existing rules on household visits despite the advice clashing with recommendations made by Dr Holohan after Christmas.

However, there is a view among ministers that there would be little impact from imposing tighter restrictions on the number of people who can meet indoors as the rules are not policed and people are already limiting their interactions.

Four households are currently permitted to meet in one home. Dr Holohan has urged people not to socialise in other households.

The Cabinet will receive an update on the latest data on the virus but ministers will not consider introducing any new restrictions. It comes as 21,302 new cases of Covid-19 were recorded, including 884 people in hospital and 90 in intensive care.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of the HSE, Paul Reid, said there was “no indication” that the country had reached the peak of the Omicron wave yet.

In a letter to hospital chiefs, Mr Reid instructed them to prioritise both urgent care and Covid-19 care for the next two weeks and to scale back the provision of elective procedures.

He confirmed the health service would use private hospital capacity for a certain amount of elective procedures but added: “We will have to suspend in many cases elective care.”

Mr Reid said the directive had been issued in the context of the “obvious” impact that Omicron was having on the health service “across the board”, the rising number of Covid-19 admissions in acute settings and the significant number of healthcare employees who were currently out of work because of Covid-19 related concerns.

Speaking on RTÉ’s News at One , he said the steps were being taken to avoid the pressure hospitals came under this time last year, when 2,020 people were being treated for the virus.

He said the level of ICU admissions arising out of Omicron were not the same as Delta.

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