PEOPLE who have been socialising in pubs, restaurants and each other's homes need to "think long and hard" about seeing vulnerable relatives over Christmas, Minister Simon Harris has warned.
This comes as there are 727 more Covid-19 cases in the Republic of Ireland, the Department of Health confirmed today.
That brings the total number of cases in the state to 80,267.
No further deaths were confirmed, with the total number of fatalities from the virus in Ireland staying at 2,158.
Minister Harris’ remarks come as Government prepares to tighten Covid-19 restrictions on the hospitality industry again as the number of cases of the virus grows.
Both Mr Harris and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe defended the Government's decision to ease restrictions for the festive period after the country's second lock-down.
Mr Harris argued that while the restrictions are being tightened there is hope as the Covid-19 vaccine is due to start being administered by the end of the year.
He said the situation with the virus - including the growth of a new strain in the UK is "deadly serious".
He said "We need to look at our contacts. We need to decide how we're going to have a meaningful and safe Christmas...
"If you've been in pubs and restaurants, having people around to the house, having a lot of social contact you need to think long and hard about whether you want to come into contact with a vulnerable relative over the Christmas period."
He said Christmas plans should be adapted to make them as safe as possible and urged people to follow the public health advice: "Because... as much as we want to see family and friends - none of us want make each other sick."
Dr. Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health, said; “Our current disease trends are gravely concerning. The situation has deteriorated rapidly in recent days. A total of 3,837 cases have been notified in the past 7 days. The five day rolling average has increased from 339 on 17th December to 616 on 21st December, an 82pc increase. It is now as important as it was back in March to limit your contacts and protect your loved ones.”
Mr Donohoe said the Government is "deeply aware" of the impact of restrictions on the hospitality sector which employs tens of thousands of people.
He said: "What we're looking to do is get the balance right between those concerns and public health.
"Tomorrow at the latest decisions will be made that will be communicated to the country about how that and other sectors may and will need to change for the rest of this year and potentially beyond."
Mr Harris said: "There's no government in the world who wants to tell people that Christmas plans need to be considered...
"But not to do so would have really bad consequences. So it's the right and proper thing for the Taoiseach and Cabinet to do."
Asked if Covid-19 restrictions were lifted too soon earlier this month, Mr Donohoe replied that the virus was being suppressed at the time.
He said: "What we are now finding is the situation has changed. And just as the government made a decision there a number of weeks ago that I believed was the right decision at that point in time, because of how quickly circumstances change we do always have to decide whether those decisions are still appropriate and whether they're conducive to protecting the health of our country… As the disease evolves in front of our eyes... the Government has to be able to change".
Of the cases notified today, 359 are men and 366 are women. Some 62pc are under 45 years of age and the median age is 36 years old.
Some 311 are in Dublin, 51 in Kilkenny, 48 in Wexford, 44 in Donegal, 44 in Cork and the remaining 229 cases are spread across the 19 other counties.
Professor Philip Nolan, Chair of the NPHET Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, said: “We’re clearly now in a third wave.
“The virus is transmitting very rapidly, faster than we have seen at any point since March. The case numbers are growing at least 5-7pc per day and, of particular concern, across all age groups.”
This comes as the European Medicines Agency has approved the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine today.
Dr Lorraine Nolan, Chief Executive, Health Products Regulatory Authority, said: “Today we welcome a highly significant announcement from the European Medicines Agency in their recommendation to approve a first vaccine for Covid-19 in Europe.
"It is a key development in our continued efforts to tackling this pandemic. This will become one additional defence in our suite of public health actions to protect us from Covid-19.”
Today, Mr Harris was asked about Nphet's advice at the time not to open up both hospitality and household visits.
He argued that the Government had been more conservative than Nphet which he said suggested opening up household visits earlier in December, for much longer and allowing more households to mix.
He also said the new strain of the virus wasn't being discussed at the time.
Mr Harris said there are no plans to alter the school calendar in January in the event of a surge in the virus.
He said: "What I'd much rather be doing today is trying to avoid the January surge. We can't allow ourselves to get into this mindset that the future is inevitable...
"We should be asking ourselves what can we do today to stop it happening".
Mr Harris said that the possible beginning of the roll-out of vaccines is "incredible" and for the first time people will be getting inoculated while restrictions are being put in place.
"What we need to do, quite frankly, quite bluntly is make sure everyone is alive to get the vaccine.
"That's the job, keep people alive, so that we can get rid of this."