The unprecedented scenario of record high case numbers – quadruple current levels – was presented to the Coalition leaders and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly on Tuesday night.
Amid mounting fears over the new variant, which spreads more easily and can evade the protection of two vaccine doses, the Government has been warned that socialising on the scale seen in the run-up to last Christmas could drive daily case numbers to a peak higher than 20,000 at the start of next year.
Mr Donnelly warned last night that under some of the Nphet scenarios it was “entirely possible” that hospitalisations due to Omicron could exceed the more than 2,000 people who were in hospital at the peak last January.
Even if Omicron proves only marginally more transmissible and people slightly reduce their contacts, the Government has been told that cases could peak at between 8,000 and 9,000 in early January, although in this scenario hospitalisations and ICU admissions may not be as high as in previous waves.
There will now be a major push on the vaccine booster programme and an appeal to people to limit their contacts this Christmas in a bid to counteract Omicron, which is expected to become the dominant strain in Ireland by the end of next week.
Speaking in Brussels
, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said both take-up in the booster jab and testing would be “key pillars” in fighting Omicron. “The public health advice now is that Omicron is everywhere,” he said.
Mr Donnelly last night waived the 15-minute waiting period after a vaccine is administered as part of efforts to ramp up the HSE’s vaccination capacity to 300,000 doses per week.
Speaking at his parliamentary party meeting last night, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said 1.75 million people or more would have received their third Covid-19 vaccination by Christmas and two million by New Year’s.
A total of 250,000 PCR tests are being carried out every week along with 100,000 free antigen tests.
Chief medical officer Tony Holohan also warned last night that people planning to spend Christmas with older or more vulnerable family members should take precautions as of yesterday, including avoiding crowds, limiting their contacts and working from home unless absolutely
He will chair a meeting of Nphet today, which will make further recommendations on public health measures to Government. While senior Coalition sources were last night not expecting major new restrictions, fresh advice around people limiting social contacts and curbs on large gatherings is thought to be likely.
One measure being considered by Nphet is a recommendation that fully-vaccinated people who are close contacts should restrict their movements for five days – a departure from the current advice that they continue as normal and take regular antigen tests.
However, there are concerns in Government that this could lead to triple-vaccinated healthcare workers and teachers being forced to stay at home.
The Coalition leaders were told on Tuesday that all efforts should be made to avoid large super-spreading events. This has led to some ministers fearing that attendances at large events lsuch as the Christmas racing festival at Leopardstown and the Munster vs Leinster rugby match on St Stephen’s Day could be curtailed.
However, the Coalition was in the dark last night as to what exactly Dr Holohan and his team will recommend when they meet today.
Mr Varadkar said ministers were likely to meet tomorrow to discuss any potential new
restrictions on social mixing and international travel proposed by Nphet.