Tony Holohan said in his letter to the Health Minister Stephen Donnelly that the ending of five-day isolation rules for boosted asymptomatic close contacts as well as other changes should continue until February 27 but could potentially be reviewed earlier subject to the “evolving epidemiological situation”.
The changes take effect tomorrow, Friday.
Dr Holohan's advice was relayed in the Cabinet memo to ministers on Tuesday and the Cabinet agreed on the new rules today. Changes to current close contact guidance will see boosted asymptomatic close contacts no longer needing to restrict their movements for five days, but they will be advised to wear a medical or higher grade mask and take antigen tests.
Meanwhile, close contacts who have not received a booster vaccine will have to restrict their movements for seven days.
Under further changes agreed by ministers, a person aged between 4 and 39 who has a positive antigen test will no longer have to have a confirmatory PCR test.
However, ministers have been told in the Cabinet memo that there will need to be further consideration of how a positive antigen test will be managed in the context of being able to obtain a Digital Covid Certificate ‘recovery cert’ and how people who test positive on antigen will be able to access welfare benefits without a confirmatory PCR test.
The new close contact rules will come into effect from midnight on Thursday.
In his letter to Mr Donnelly, Dr Holohan advised that boosted asymptomatic close contacts should continue to work from home unless essential to attend in person as well as taking other precautions.
"Given the high levels of infection across the country, it is particularly important that cases and close contacts continue to follow the public health advice issued to the general population," Dr Holohan said
These also include limiting close contact with other people outside their homes, wearing appropriate face coverings in crowded, enclosed, or poorly ventilated spaces, taking antigen tests before visiting such spaces or having contact with people outside their home, avoiding contact with people at high risk of severe illness if infected and following all other protective measures.
Dr Holohan also noted that the changes to advice which reduce the period of restricted movements for close contacts "will enable such individuals to attend their booster vaccine appointment, thereby facilitating increased uptake in the vaccination programme overall".
Speaking at Government Buildings, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the changes “reflects the progress we are making in terms of the fight against Omicron and Covid-19 generally”.
He said it was “made possible by the very strong vaccination programme that has been underway over the last year and two weeks”, noting that 10 million vaccines have now been administered over the last year.
“We have to remain vigilant; we have to keep on top of this virus. But the decision on close contacts represents a balance in terms of the pressures on supply chains, in particular, and on the health service and other essential services,” he said.
Mr Martin said that about 6.4 million free antigen tests have been sent out by the HSE on top of the 300,000 PCR tests being administered on a weekly basis.
Mr Martin defended the testing programme, noting the country was dealing with a “very, very transmissible variant, highly transmissible” and that the rates of mortality and hospitalisations were evidence that the current wave was being managed effectively.
“No system in the world can deal with a variant as transmissible as this,” he said.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions said that decisions such as the relaxation of the close contact rules must be based on public health advice and kept under constant review.
“Unions are acutely aware of the surging case numbers and the knock-on effect for workers who are close contacts and for public services and businesses,” said Ictu general secretary Patricia King.
“The amendments to isolation periods recommended by the Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tony Holohan to Government are not without risk as already outlined by the ECDC in their very recent report. Therefore we must continue to be cautious.
“Given the current rate of virus transmission, these changes must be kept under constant review by Nphet. Employers must be required to provide their staff with the recommended high-grade masks and supply antigen tests, as needed. The Enhanced Illness Benefit should continue to be available to workers who need it.”
Ictu said it was expected that the Stakeholder Forum of the Safety Protocol will convene in coming days to further discuss the implications of the changes in workplaces.
Business group Ibec welcomed the changes to the close contact rules and said they would support businesses to manage the staffing challenges presented by Covid.
“2022 has undoubtedly been a difficult start for thousands of businesses across the country. Today’s announcement from Government will enable many struggling businesses to take their first steps towards addressing crippling staffing challenges induced by Covid and in turn, better ensure that recent disruptions to manufacturing and retailing activities providing essential supply of goods and services across society are not repeated,” said chief executive Danny McCoy.
“Business recognises the role it must continue to play in supporting the suppression of Covid, ensuring our workplaces are safe environments, and continuing our positive engagement with Government on the implementation of the Work Safely Protocol guidance.”
The changing rules on close contacts will come into effect as of Friday, January 14, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly confirmed.
Minister Donnelly said increased rates of infection in the community are having a “knock-on effect on other essential services”, aside from the increased pressure on the health service, with 1,055 people in hospital with the virus.
“Today’s announcement, which is informed by the latest guidance from the ECDC, will help to alleviate the extreme pressure on our healthcare service and other functions in society, including essential services.
“These changes will reduce the requirement for restricted movements for close contacts while enhancing other protective measures particularly mask wearing and reiterating the importance for all of us to continue to follow the public health measures.
“These changes will also enable such individuals to attend their booster vaccine appointment, supporting increased uptake in the vaccination programme overall,” Minister Donnelly said.
Given the high levels of infection across the country, the Department of Health is advising cases and close contacts to continue to follow the public health advice issued to the general population, and for a period of 10 days:
• limit close contact with other people outside their household, especially in crowded, enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces
• wear an appropriate face mask/face covering in crowded, enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces and where they are in close contact with other people
• take an antigen test before entering crowded, enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces and prior to having close contact with other people from outside their household
• avoid contact with anyone who is at higher risk of severe illness if infected with Covid-19
• work from home unless it is essential to attend in person
• follow all public health protective measures
The period of restricted movements for close contacts applies from the date of last contact with positive case if known or, if not, from date of notification as a contact.
“Close contacts of any age who have recovered following COVID-19 detected by a PCR or antigen test carried out since 1st December 2021 are not required to restrict movements or test if asymptomatic. If they become symptomatic, they should immediately self-isolate, get tested and wear a mask as appropriate,” a Department spokesperson said.
More to follow...