Travel curbs | 

No new travel restrictions planned for now as Omicron may take two weeks to assess

Coalition leaders will meet main figures from Nphet today in crunch meetings
Gabija Gataveckaite

The Government is anxious to hold off from bringing in major new travel curbs despite the looming threat of the Omicron variant.

Sources have said two to three weeks will allow scientists to analyse the new variant, which has triggered strict new travel rules across Europe and the UK.

However, this is subject to public health advice – and coalition leaders will meet main figures from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) today in crunch meetings.

They will discuss findings from Nphet’s Epidemiological Surveillance Team, which met over the weekend .

One senior minister said the Government was cautious not to panic over the Omicron variant and that it would take a further two to three weeks for the mutation to be examined by scientists.

“We should be careful to not read much more into it until we get real scientific understanding as to what’s actually happening,” they said.

“It will take two or three weeks to fully assess.”

The Government will wait to see if the Omicron variant is more transmissible, if it leads to more serious illness and whether or not it reduces vaccine efficacy.

Visa requirements have been updated and the advisory to avoid non-essential travel has been applied to countries including Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Legislation on mandatory hotel quarantine will be passed through the Dáil this week and activated only if deemed necessary.

It will also give time for arrangements to be made with hotels and contracts to be agreed on.

The variant has been identified in countries across Europe including the UK, Germany, Italy and Belgium, as well as Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong since it was first reported to the World Health Organisation by South Africa last Wednesday.

It has prompted new measures on travel to be introduced in many other countries across the world.

But Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney yesterday welcomed confirmation that new travel measures taken by the UK against Omicron will not apply to people arriving from Ireland.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan last night said regulations were being drawn up by public health officials for new policies around travel and home quarantine.

“Regulations are being drawn up to give effect to the new travel and home quarantine policies,” he said.

Dr Holohan said people who had travelled from the relevant African countries to Ireland since November 1 should ­“isolate and present for PCR testing, regardless of symptom status”.

While the coming weeks will bring us close to Christmas, public health officials believe there is too much focus on the festive season and are currently working on a three-month plan for battling the surging Delta variant.

“Ultimately, we need to be thinking about setting aside Omicron; what we need to be thinking about as a society is the next three months – December, January and February,” Dr Cillian de Gascun, head of the National Virus Reference Laboratory and Nphet member, told Newstalk’s On the Record show.

“Before we ever had a pandemic, our winters really put pressure on the healthcare system,” he said.

“We didn’t have any of the other respiratory viruses circulating last year. They are coming back.

“Rather than looking at the short-term elements in relation to Christmas, or whatever, we need to be thinking as a society about the next three months and, as individuals, what we can do safely over the next three months.”

The Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19, which normally makes key decisions around restrictions ahead of a full Cabinet meeting, is not scheduled to meet today.

It is envisaged the full Cabinet meeting tomorrow morning will then make final decisions on latest restrictions.

It is expected that Nphet advice on children wearing masks at school or avoiding nativity plays and pantomimes for the next two weeks will be given the green light by Cabinet; however, it will solely be on an advisory and not statutory basis.

Ministers will also consider extending Covid passes to other sectors such as gyms and hairdressers.

Meanwhile, the Government will not make a decision until Tuesday on whether or not pupils from third class and up should wear masks.

The latest Nphet advice recommends that children over the age of nine should wear masks in shops and on public transport, while those under 12 should avoid crowded indoor gatherings, such as pantomimes and nativity plays.

Plans have also been activated to identify any spread of the Omicron variant in Northern Ireland, Stormont’s Health Minister has said.

Robin Swann urged the public to follow basic steps to help prevent the spread of all variants, and underlined the continuing importance of ­vaccination.

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