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Ireland’s Covid surge down to ‘brutal’ lifting of restrictions ‘from too much to too few’ says WHO chief as almost 24,000 new cases reported

  • 23,702 new cases reported today with 1,338 Covid patients in hospital, 61 of whom are in ICU
  • This is on top of the 63,954 new infections recorded over the St Patrick’s festivities
  • A ban on visits at inpatient wards at Nenagh was announced today and a similar ban has been in place at UHL since last Sunday.

  • Ireland is among several European countries now experiencing a spike, with five million new cases in Europe in last seven days

  • A sharp decline in the wearing of face masks has emerged

  • Further cancellations of procedures for waiting-list patients due to infection control measures in hospitals

  • Nursing union says hospitals now becoming dangerous and calls for masks to be reintroduced in shops and on public transport

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HSE chief Paul Reid called on those who are now ready for a Covid-19 booster shot to come forward. Photo: Leon Farrell

HSE chief Paul Reid called on those who are now ready for a Covid-19 booster shot to come forward. Photo: Leon Farrell

The ESRI survey found just two-thirds of shoppers and public transport users were wearing a mask. Photo: Gareth Chaney

The ESRI survey found just two-thirds of shoppers and public transport users were wearing a mask. Photo: Gareth Chaney

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Ireland is among some countries that lifted restrictions “brutally” and are now seeing a spike in Covid-19 cases as a result, the World Health Organisation has said.

WHO Europe director Hans Kluge made the comments as another 23,702 new cases were reported here by the Department of Health today.

There are now 1,338 Covid patients in hospital, 61 of whom are in ICU

Covid is now on the rise in 18 of the 53 WHO European countries due to the highly transmissible BA.2 variant, with Mr Kluge blaming the surge in Ireland on the rapid lifting of restrictions.

He told a press conference in Moldova today: "The countries where we see a particular increase are the United Kingdom, Ireland, Greece, Cyprus, France, Italy and Germany.

"Those countries are lifting the restrictions brutally from too much to too few.”

There have been more than five million new cases in Europe in the last seven days and a further 12,496 deaths in the region, the WHO said.

The spike in cases due to BA.2 is not just a European phenomenon, though, with the world seeing an 8pc rise in the numbers of cases in the past week.

It comes as leading immunologist Professor Luke O’Neill said the new BA2 Covid-19 variant is “sweeping up everyone who didn’t get Omicron”.

The Trinity College academic said another wave of coronavirus is being seen globally and that for those who didn’t catch Omicron it’s “almost impossible” for them to avoid this new variant.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said there were no plans to reintroduce Covid restrictions or mask rules despite a call from a major nursing union that masks again be required for indoor settings amid a surge in cases.

There were 63,954 new infections reported over the St Patrick’s festivities and another 23,702 new cases reported today.

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A visiting ban has now been put in place at University Hospital Limerick and at Nenagh General Hospital, Co Tipperary, due to a “very high” number of patients being treated for Covid-19.

A ban on visits at inpatient wards at Nenagh was announced today and a similar ban has been in place at UHL since last Sunday.

There are 86 confirmed Covid-19 patients at UHL and six Covid patients in ICU.

UHL is the most overcrowded hospital nationally with 84 patients on trolleys including 35 in the emergency department and 49 on wards, according to statistics published by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) this morning.

Meanwhile, Prof Luke O’Neill has said the new BA.2 variant “could be the most infectious virus we have seen”.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1’s Today with Claire Byrne, he said: “[We are] in a global wave, it’s just happening again in a sense and it’s because of this BA.2 variant, the new variant around, the sister of Omicron, and this is much more infectious than Omicron and it’s spreading more and more widely.

"It could be the most infectious virus we have seen amazingly, chickenpox and measles is very infectious, we know these spread like wildfire but this BA.2, there's nothing like it.

"It is 30pc more infectious than Omicron which is already 70pc more infectious than the previous one.

“BA.2 is sweeping up everyone who didn’t get Omicron. In other words, it’s almost impossible to avoid this.”

He added that with this new variant, symptoms are showing much quicker, usually in two days compared to four days with Omicron, but he said it seems to go away quicker as well.

Prof O’Neill said some good news is that it seems to be less lethal than flu in those that are vaccinated.

He added that he expects the peak of this wave to be seen at the beginning of April and then cases will begin to decrease.

"The great news is that a wall of vaccination is holding up massively all over the world and really protecting us,” he said.

"The evidence that vaccines are protecting us is there and it’s great to see, otherwise the ICU’s would be overwhelmed.”

But, he stressed those who are not vaccinated can still get really sick so he encouraged everyone to be triple-vaccinated and for healthcare workers, people over the age of 60 and those medically vulnerable to get a fourth shot.

The Tánaiste said today that there are no plans to reimpose Covid restrictions or the wearing of face masks despite a significant uptick in the number of people in hospital with Covid-19.

Mr Varadkar made his comments after a major nursing union called for the reintroduction of mask rules for settings such as retail, dining and public transport, saying hospitals were becoming dangerous because of overcrowding and high Covid cases.

The INMO is calling for the return of mandatory mask-wearing in indoor settings as 63,954 Covid-19 cases were confirmed since St Patrick’s Day.

The call came as a survey showed a big drop in the numbers wearing face masks in retail and on public transport since the rules were lifted last month.

INMO general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha said hospitals have become extremely overwhelmed due to the prevalence of the virus, with 570 patients being left on trollies across the country yesterday.

“Mandatory mask-wearing is one of the issues, the HSE has to make a decision,” she said on RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves and the increase has put pressure on hospitals, which are always under pressure after bank holidays, but our members are reporting to us that the level of Covid is very, very high and that puts additional pressure on an already very busy and overcrowded system and this is leading to a lot of unsafe practices.”

She added that there is “tremendous pressure to find spaces for patients that are leading to decisions that are simply unsafe”.

Ms Ní Sheaghdha said her members are calling for mask-wearing to be mandatory again in certain settings as hospitals cannot continue as they are.

“What we are saying is anywhere where people are congregating in an indoor environment [masks should be worn],” she said.

“Hospitals simply cannot cope and that translates to unsafe care.

“We cannot continue with this, we just can't. It’s very, very dangerous. We have seen that hospital-acnquired infection has increased significantly over the past number of weeks.

"Our hospitals are becoming reservoirs for Covid and of itself being admitted to hospital now is a danger.”

The INMO chief said there is a “huge issue” with ventilation in Irish hospitals.

“We don’t have any evidence from the HSE that measures are being taken to correct this,” she added.

"When you have an airborne infection you must have complete and utter attention to air hygiene to ensure windows can be opened, that the air of itself is being measured but what we know is we have overcrowded hospitals – we have patients on wards without the proper facilities and very dangerous higher-than-safe levels of occupancy always leads to infection and this simply cannot continue.”

The high number of Covid patients in hospital has led to many further cancellations of procedures for waiting-list patients due to infection-control measures in hospitals in Limerick, Donegal, Kerry and Dublin.

However, the Tánaiste said “it’s absolutely the case” that there has been an increase in the number testing positive for the virus in hospital. He said roughly half of these would be in hospital for other reasons and are testing positive incidentally.

“At the moment there’s no public health advice being given to us that we should reintroduce masks or reimpose restrictions in any way, so, unless that comes we’re not going to do it and we don’t anticipate it,” Mr Varadkar said.

The Tánaiste said it was always expected there would be an increase in cases once all restrictions were lifted and this will “fall off” over the next coming weeks.

Some hospitals may be deferring elective activities in the coming weeks due to the rising hospital figures and while the Tánaiste said this “wasn’t desirable”, he said it’s “a better thing to do than to have hundreds of people on trolleys” as hospitals deal with additional infection-control numbers.

Mr Varadkar said the advice is to wear a face covering in indoor crowded settings but, “we’re not going to make it a criminal offence not to do so”.

As the Government and health officials ruled out any return to restrictions for now, the Economic and Social Research Institute’s (ESRI) tracker survey – which has been measuring our behaviour for over a year – revealed how swift people were to ditch face masks after they were no longer compulsory from February 28.

It showed a steep drop in the reported wearing of face masks on public transport and in shops in the week after the mask mandate was lifted.

Almost all close contact meet-ups are conducted without a face mask and this is particularly driven by colleagues in the workplace.

The ESRI survey found just two-thirds of shoppers and public transport users were wearing a mask despite the strong public health advice to continue to use them in these settings.

However, the lifting of restrictions has had a beneficial impact on the nation’s well-being.

It showed that well-being rose for the first time this year and was at its highest since last summer. This was seen in all age groups but was strongest in people aged under 40.

More people are going out for a walk, run or cycle.

A majority of people judged their mental health as being the same or better compared to before the pandemic and fewer regard it as worse.

Over half of people say their social life is the same or better than it was before the pandemic. The survey found for young people the link between well-being and social life is particularly strong.

The extent to which people felt lonely fell significantly.

Around half of people felt restrictions could return due to seasonal changes, but few believed they will be reintroduced due to a rise in cases.

Overall, the extent to which people are following news around Covid-19 continues to fall.

There was a significant increase in the proportion of people saying they rarely or never follow basics such as keeping a distance, washing their hands or wearing a face mask.

Overall, worry about Covid-19 between March 1 to 9 remained stable since late January with one in four still highly worried.

Meanwhile, there has been a significant drop in the percentage of the population reporting feeling lonely. Visiting outdoor locations such as parks was linked with less frequent feelings of loneliness.

The majority also felt the Government’s response to the pandemic was appropriate.

HSE chief Paul Reid yesterday called on those within the 700,000 group of people who are now ready for a Covid-19 booster shot to come forward. Some had been delayed due to Covid-19 infection earlier this year.

The booster is still providing strong protection against severe disease.

He said the BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron is highly transmissible.

Around half the patients in hospital with Covid-19 were admitted for another illness rather than complications of the virus. But infection control measures and staff absences of more than 4,000 are highly disruptive.


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