Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has said the Government will make a decision “imminently” on whether to enfroce travel restrictions from Southern Africa due to the new Covid-19 variant.
I spoke to Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney this morning and the Government will be making a decision on this very soon. We’re obviously members of the European Union so I would expect a decision on this imminently.
“Time is of the essence, and we do have Irish people that may be travelling, and we have to be aware of their needs too,” he told Today with Claire Byrne on RTE.
HSE chief Paul Reid has said the new Covid-19 variant detected in South Africa has now moved from a variant of interest to a “variant of concern”.
Minister Donohoe said mandatory hotel quarantine could be implemented again as a result of this new variant.
“If it is needed, I believe it will be of a very different scope and scale to where we were the last time it was in place. I hope though I can’t be certain that if we do need to reinstate it, it will be more limited in terms of the number of countries and therefore the capacity that we will need.
“I believe and anticipate that we will need to make changes but we’re conscious of Irish people who might be abroad. If there’s a need for Cabinet to meet today that will happen quickly. It’s a deep concern when we get news like this today,” he said.
Minister Donohoe said the legislation for mandatory hotel quarantine has expired but it is something that can be acted on very quickly.
“I believe that legislation has expired but this will be something that I’m sure the Minister for Health and the Government will be working on throughout the day but of course this is something that if we do need to act upon, I would expect with the consent of the Dáil we’ll be able to act on very quickly.
Last night, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said he was “deeply concerned” by the ‘Nu’ variant.
And Mr Reid echoed these fears this morning.
“The concern in terms of any variant is that it can potentially evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible which we know from Delta can have significant impacts. There’s no case identified yet in the UK or in the EU,” Mr Reid said.
“In South Africa I think there’s about 59 cases identified yesterday and in one province in particular where positivity rate went from about 1pc to 30pc in about three weeks so we would have an obvious cause for concern.
“We await to see further assessment through our own department and this moved from a variant of interest to a variant of concern,” he told Morning Ireland on RTÉ.
The European Union aims to stop air travel from the southern African region as a result of the new variant, according to EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.
Mr Reid said Ireland’s hospital system is still under strain due to high levels of Covid-19 infection. As of 8am this morning there were 598 people hospitalised with virus.
“The reality is we’re still hovering around the 600 mark of people in hospital, last night it was 556 and 126 Covid positive patients in ICU but I’ve no doubt that will slightly increase this morning.
“I think a couple of things we will take some comfort from are certainly the actions we took last week to try to mitigate a lot of the risk across our hospital system by keeping a priority focus on urgent elective care and indeed Covid patients.
“But what I would take encouragement from is the public’s response, the public have really got it once again and understood fully the high-risk situation that we’re in.
“The real challenge is we need to sustain that now because we’re still at high risk in our hospital situation and the public’s response is very welcome, but we really need to sustain this now for a period of time,” he said.
Mr Reid acknowledged the delay people are experiencing when trying to secure a PCR test but said the HSE is prioritising symptomatic close contacts and those referred by their GP.
“Just over the last seven days there’s now over 210,000 PCR tests completed in our labs and we’re still having very high positivity rates of transmission levels in the community. Next week we will bring on three further centres through private capacity.
“We’re prioritising those clinically referred through GPS and symptomatic close contacts so certainly some people who are self-referring are experiencing delays and I want to acknowledge that but what I will say is it’s ultimately key that you isolate if symptomatic and that you continue to isolate for at least 48 hours after your symptoms dissipate,” he said.
Mr Reid said the HSE welcomes the decision from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to vaccinate children from the age of five.
“It’s under consideration by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) and then ultimately it’ll be a decision for government recommendation which we expect. From our perspective we’re not waiting on that we’re working through the delivery schedule from the suppliers of the vaccine and all indications across Europe are that that will be towards the end of December.
“We’re finalising the operating model and how we would bring children through vaccination centres with parent’s consent. We want to make it a very safe environment and a pleasant environment for young children.
“There are about 480,000 children, we do have a very significant vaccination centre infrastructure across the country, but we won’t be ruling out the options of school either,” he said.
Mr Reid said this weekend those over the age of 60 will be able to receive their booster vaccine if they got their last dose over five months ago.
“From this weekend we’ll be focusing on the 60 to 69 year olds and healthcare workers and that will be a combination of appointments but walk-in facilities at specific sights at specific times, five months from your second vaccine.
He also said those aged over 50 will be called for their booster dose in the middle of December
“That’s now going to be brought forward to the middle of December, from next week the medically vulnerable group will be starting to receive appointments from this weekend and coming forward for vaccination from next week,” he said.