Pressure grows on HSE to step up roll-out of booster jabs as peak of wave still to hit

The HSE has come under pressure to ramp up the roll-out of the vaccine booster programme as Covid-19 puts a huge strain on the hospital system.

t a Cabinet committee on Covid-19, ministers called on HSE chief executive Paul Reid to accelerate the booster programme to limit the spread of the fourth wave of the virus.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney offered the HSE boss the help of the Defence Forces to speed up the administration of vaccines.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly defended the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac), saying more than 2.4 million people are currently eligible for boosters.

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In a briefing for ministers the HSE said around 20,000 people aged between 60 and 69 have received boosters since Niac gave clearance in October, while 75,000 healthcare workers received their jabs in the last week.

There is a delay in giving people in their 60s boosters because many were given AstraZeneca vaccines and received their second shot less than six months ago.

Niac recommended that boosters only be given six months after a person’s second jab.

Last night, Mr Donnelly said he expects the use of boosters to be extended as ministers were warned that the peak of the virus is now ­further away than first thought.

He said that evidence for boosters is “incredibly strong” and he was waiting new advice from Niac.

It is expected to recommend booster jabs for all adults aged over 50.

“The indications are that it is positive in terms of adding a significant number to those who would be availing of boosters,” he said.

Mr Donnelly said that it is “all hands on deck” in rolling out the booster shots.

Meanwhile, antigen tests are to be introduced in schools to test asymptomatic children who are close contacts of ­confirmed cases of Covid-19.

The Government is planning a major roll-out of rapid testing to tackle the spread of the virus.

Central to the plan will be rolling out the tests in secondary and primary schools for pupils who have come in contact with classmates who tested positive for Covid-19.

A pupil who tests positive after an antigen test will also be required to undergo a PCR test.

Any pupil displaying symptoms of Covid-19 will be required to get a PCR test rather than an antigen test.

Mr Donnelly will also outline plans to subsidise the cost of antigen tests to encourage people to use them.

The Cabinet Committee discussed the rising virus case numbers and the high level of hospitalisations and intensive care unit admissions.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and his senior ministers also discussed the recommendations of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).

The Cabinet committee is expected to accept the majority of Nphet’s advice on encouraging people to work from home where possible and introducing stricter rules on mask wearing in crowded areas both indoors and outdoors.

There is also expected to be a renewed focus on ensuring the hospitality sector enforces the use of Covid passes for entry to restaurants, pubs, cafes and nightclubs.

Government sources said Nphet’s recommendation to expand the use of Covid passes to other sectors was also due to be examined by the Cabinet committee.

The source said they did not expect any “draconian” new restrictions, but said the Government recognises there is a need for people to reduce their socialising.

Mr Martin is planning to make a live televised address today to outline the seriousness of the current situation with the virus.

Nphet’s Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group head Professor Philip Nolan gave updated modelling to the Cabinet committee.

A Government source said the peak of the wave is further away than first ­anticipated, and high case numbers will continue to be recorded over the coming weeks.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, Mr Donnelly said the numbers of positive cases, as well as patients in hospital and ICU with Covid-19 are set to rise in the coming weeks.

New modelling shows a worst case scenario could see 500 people being admitted to intensive care units.

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