Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has said the current level of free Covid-19 testing, case finding and contact tracing should be scaled back despite the current summer wave of infections and hospitalisations.
He questioned the “public health rationale” for maintaining a high level response in these areas to the pandemic.
“In broad terms, notwithstanding the recent increase in viral circulation, the path of direction continues to be one away from extensive testing, case finding and tracing aimed at reducing transmission for which there is no public health rationale,” he told Health Minister Stephen Donnelly last week.
He said the way forward must instead be focused on reducing the severe impacts of Covid-19 based on health and clinical need.
Updated plans for testing, tracing and surveillance will be provided to Mr Donnelly for consideration in the coming weeks.
Dr Holohan's comments follow recent signals by the HSE that it will close some Covid-19 contact tracing teams, except for a core group, at the end of this month.
It will also reduce the number of vaccination centres and cut down on the extent of free PCR testing for the purpose of surveillance or a doctor referral in the coming months.
A small team of contact tracers involved in the most complex cases of the last two years have criticised the decision to disband them.
Dr Holohan said last week that more than seven in 10 patients hospitalised directly due to Covid-19 complications were aged 65 and older.
His weekly report, compiled last Friday, said of those in hospital of all ages directly due to Covid at that point 46pc had received a booster vaccination, 19pc had completed primary vaccination and 35pc had not completed their primary course.
“As of June 14, 72pc of cases hospitalised for Covid were aged 65 and older,” he said.
At that point the summer wave, driven by new variants BA.4 and BA.5 as well as public behaviour and increased mixing, led to the number of patients with Covid rising to 508.
Almost half were in hospital for other illnesses but after testing were found to have Covid-19.
The number of people in hospital with Covid yesterday rose to 627, of whom 25 were in intensive care, signalling that so far the wave is not leading to rising levels of serious disease.
The age breakdown for the 300 patients who were in hospital last Friday as a result of complications due to Covid-19 included 114 who were over aged 80, 101 aged 65-79, 34 aged 50-64, 37 aged 15-49 and 14 who were aged 14 or younger.
The number of patients in intensive care due to Covid fell from 14 on June 7 to 10 on June 14.
Dr Holohan said the Covid burden has left hospitals “under considerable pressure” and this had increased significantly in recent weeks.
He repeated the warning that if the recent trend continues hospitals will find it more difficult to admit patients for scheduled and unscheduled care.
A total of 8,751 confirmed PCR cases were reported in the week to June 15, a 72pc increase over the previous seven days.
As of yesterday the seven-day positivity rate for people going for PCR tests was 30.8pc up from 26.1pc a week earlier.
Dr Holohan said the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) is expected to recommend an autumn booster shot.
He said it is particularly important that those eligible for a booster shot now take it up to avoid severe disease and for people to isolate if they have symptoms.