'unrecorded infections' | 

Major changes to Covid isolation and testing rules to keep country open

New testing and isolation regime as fears grow over absent workersConfirmed cases raced past the 20,000 mark yesterdayThousands more infections believed to be going unrecordedThe National Ambulance Service is operating at Level Three Red, which means it is under major pressure heading into New Year’s Eve
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly

Gabija Gataveckaite, Conor Feehan and Eoghan Moloney

Radical changes to testing and isolation rules are aimed at keeping the country open in the face of soaring Covid cases.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly confirmed the changes amid mounting concern about the impact of absent staff on key sectors including the health and emergency services.

As confirmed cases raced past the 20,000 mark in a single day, the country’s testing system was creaking, with many thousands more infections believed to be going unrecorded.

Notably, testing advice has been changed. The Department of Health said those aged from four to 39 should use antigen tests if they suspect they have Covid and only seek a PCR test from the HSE if they get a positive antigen result.

Earlier this year, Nphet official Prof Philip Nolan compared antigen tests with “snake oil”, but they are now set to be a key pillar in the fight against the highly transmissible Omicron strain.

Self-isolating advice for those who test positive for Covid-19 has also changed. Those aged 12 and over who have had their booster vaccine jabs for at least seven days should self-isolate for seven days instead of the previous advice of 10 days.

It comes amid mounting concern that many businesses and services will be unable to function next month due to tens of thousands of people being absent, either as a confirmed Covid case or a close contact.

Senior government sources maintained the plan remained for schools to reopen as expected after the Christmas break.

The Irish Independent has spoken with representatives from a range of different sectors who expressed worry at the high levels of absent staff that now seem inevitable as the Christmas holidays draw to a close.

The National Ambulance Service (NAS) is operating at Level Three Red, which means it is under major pressure heading into New Year’s Eve.

It sent out urgent messages yesterday afternoon asking for any available staff to work overtime and to cover up to 19 staff who are out sick in the greater Dublin and Leinster regions.

An additional 20,554 confirmed cases of Covid-19 were notified yesterday – the fourth time this week that Ireland has seen a record number of cases.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan urged the public to avoid mixing indoors with people from other households as we head into the new year. He said Omicron accounts for more than 90pc of cases here.

“The most effective way to minimise the risk of any of us transmitting this virus to others is to avoid mixing indoors with people from other households,” he said.

“I know this is not the advice any one of us wants to hear, particularly in advance of New Year celebrations. However, given the current profile of the disease, it is essential that all of us continue to keep our social contacts as low as possible in the days ahead.”

No workers who have tested positive should attend work “in any circumstances”, a government spokesperson said.

Contingency plans have been put in place by secretaries general in each Government department for each sector on steps to be taken if key positions are left vacant.

This comes as senior government sources last night expressed concern about society effectively shutting down in the coming weeks due to record Covid cases.

Government departments have put in specific derogations for workers who are close contacts but are “symptom-free” and “all other efforts to backfill key positions have been exhausted and critical service areas or infrastructure is at risk”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said no derogations had been put in place yet for An Garda Síochána or the prison service.

A full cabinet meeting is set to take place next week and Nphet is scheduled to meet on Thursday.

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