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dominant strain Health chiefs concerned South African variant threat could prolong lockdown

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said that while the country is likely to have passed the worst of the disease this year, there will be a need to keep virus levels low.

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Dr Ronan Glynn hopes we have passed the worst for 2021, but cautioned that the drive to reduce transmission rates must remain steadfast. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Dr Ronan Glynn hopes we have passed the worst for 2021, but cautioned that the drive to reduce transmission rates must remain steadfast. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Dr Ronan Glynn hopes we have passed the worst for 2021, but cautioned that the drive to reduce transmission rates must remain steadfast. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

THE threat of the South African Covid-19 variant, which has already been detected in 11 people who travelled here, is among the "unknowns" which could leave the country facing restrictions and quarantine measures in the coming months, it emerged last night.

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said that while the country is likely to have passed the worst of the disease this year, there will be a need to keep virus levels low.

He could not confirm whether or not the construction industry will reopen early next month.

Dr Glynn said priorities are the reopening of education and non-Covid healthcare.

Once case numbers go down, he said, "we must keep the virus actively suppressed".

"If they go back up, we have seen what will happen," he added. The dominant strain in Ireland right now is the more infectious UK variant.

"I would hope we will move in a steady, more positive frame over the coming months," he said, referring to more people being outdoors, which is lower risk. But case numbers must be kept down, he insisted.

Dr Glynn was speaking as a preliminary study found the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine - which is being rolled out to healthcare workers here this week - offered only limited protection against mild to moderate disease in vaccinated people who caught the South African variant, although it may still prevent severe illness.

That variant has been contained here and has not spread into the community.

Dr Cillian de Gascún, head of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, said it is essential that we reduce the virus's ability to replicate or reproduce, because that is when mutations happen.

"Variants will continue to emerge. We focused on three but it is likely there will be more in the coming months or years," he said.

It is likely that people will need booster shots of vaccine in the coming years. With the aid of technology, jabs can be adapted to deal with new variants in a short time.

Earlier, Prof Kingston Mills, of the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin, said that if the study findings are confirmed, it highlighted the need for the Government to step up measures around mandatory quarantine for airline passengers.

Asked about reports that some nursing-home staff have had to be offered "prizes" by management to take the vaccine, Dr Glynn said nobody should be unduly pressurised to take the vaccine.

He said he hoped healthcare workers would get vaccinated, but if they have legitimate concerns around side effects, they should consult their doctor.

There is no proposal to make vaccination mandatory.

Questioned on claims that some doctors are charging patients for Covid-19 assessments, he said these are free and if that is the case, people should go to another medic.

Professor Philip Nolan, of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), said there were six additional Covid-19 deaths yesterday and 829 new cases.

The reintroduction of testing of close contacts will add to the daily toll for some time before they fall, he said, adding that the Health Service Executive (HSE) was now going to resume offering close contacts two tests, he said.

"Steady progress" is being made, he said, and the hope was that daily cases could be reduced to between 200 and 400 a day by the end of February.

Prof Nolan added that mortality remains high and it would take some time to come down. Meanwhile, latest vaccination figures showed that, up to last Friday, 230,766 doses of Covid-19 vaccines had been administered across the country, including 84,220 to residents and staff in long-term care.

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