staff absences | 

Post-Christmas return to work blow as 140,000 are forced to isolate with virus

Coalition determined schools will reopen on Thursday despite Covid surge
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly (Niall Carson/PA)

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly (Niall Carson/PA)

Paul Hyland and John Downing

The post-Christmas return to work faces a huge hit as Covid-19 numbers reach record highs and the resultant close contacts add to huge staff absences.

The three leaders of Government will meet tomorrow to review a situation which saw more people infected with the virus over the Christmas holidays than over the whole of 2020 in Ireland.

More than 140,000 people are isolating as confirmed Covid cases, with many more close contacts unable to attend the workplace.

All signs are that the Government is determined that schools will reopen on Thursday and there is a reluctance to revert to serious lockdown measures.

But amid dire public warnings from chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan about the situation, the prospect of a special Cabinet meeting late this week, following a meeting of the expert Nphet committee on Thursday, has not been ruled out.

Cars queue outside the vaccination centre at City West, Saggart, Co Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Cars queue outside the vaccination centre at City West, Saggart, Co Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Last night 17,071 new cases of Covid-19 were reported with more than 700 people in hospital due to the virus, 87 of whom were in intensive care units.

The problem of co-ordinating public information, which has dogged the health services since the virus began, also continues. Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said last Friday that people who recorded positive antigen tests could upload close contact details to the HSE computer system.

This view was repeated yesterday by Green Party leader and Transport Minister, Eamon Ryan, who said there was a mechanism for people to register their positive antigen tests. Mr Ryan appeared confident that people could already use this system.

But a short time later HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said work was continuing on a system to combine antigen test results into the data system.

Senior political sources were last night determined that schools will reopen for the most part as planned on Thursday.

But there are major challenges with the numbers of teachers and support staff who may be stricken with the virus or identified as close contacts.

Mr Ryan conceded there may be staffing challenges with individual schools, but he insisted the solution will not be to shut down the school system.

“It’s important that schools do open on Thursday. Each school will have different circumstances,” Mr Ryan told RTÉ’s This Week programme.

“It’ll be more difficult probably in primary than in secondary schools, because it’s more difficult, particularly for a smaller school to get relief teachers.”

The Government is studying ways of relaxing the self-isolation rules to allow vital services and the economy generally to function.

It will consider reducing the self-isolation period from 10 to five days for some who test positive for Covid-19.

The speculation is that people who have received a booster dose of vaccine, but have come in close contact with someone infected by the virus, could have their current isolation time of five days reduced.

Mr Ryan was reticent to discuss a clear clash between the official government advice on public gatherings, and statements by Dr Holohan who urged people to avoid public or private gatherings.

“The messaging is clear. The Irish people, I think, regardless of what we were saying, recognised in their own selves that we know we need to be careful here,” he said .

Despite warnings of pressure on the hospital system, Mr Ryan said that yesterday there were up to 500 spare beds in the hospital system which so far was coping with the pressure.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said the country begins 2022 in a “stronger position thanks to vaccines and effective new treatments”.

“Our case numbers are high and concerning, but good to see the rate of hospitalisations has fallen dramatically compared to this time last year,” he tweeted.

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