Ireland is not in the same precarious position it was in last year with regard to Covid-19 and there may be a way to press on with reopening while maintaining certain public health measures, Minister Simon Harris has said.
The Cabinet is to make a decision next Tuesday on the proposed reopening on October 22, the minister confirmed.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid has said the rise in cases in the last week isn’t a cause to “hit the panic button” but rather to be treated as a “significant early warning”.
The further and higher education minister said there may be a “third way” to approach the October 22 reopening rather than just pausing or pressing on with the proposed relaxing of restrictions.
“We’re at a different point, this is not 2020,” Mr Harris said.
“We do need some perspective as well. We’re seeing this at a time when 90pc of our people are fully vaccinated and we’re seeing the benefits of that. I do think we have to move away from thinking it’s a binary choice when it comes to Covid and reopening.
“I think there’s now a third way. I think there’s a choice facing Government and we’ll consult the health experts - Nphet meet on Monday - and a decision will be made on Tuesday. I think we can proceed, pause or proceed whilst retaining some safeguards.
“I would ask the question if there is a way of proceeding with more of the reopening while perhaps retaining vaccine certs a little longer or perhaps maintaining face masks in scenarios where perhaps they were not envisaged a few weeks ago,” Minister Harris said on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.
The rise in cases in the past week isn’t a cause to “hit the panic button” as Ireland is at a “much different place” when facing 2,000 daily cases of Covid-19 in comparison to earlier this year, HSE chief executive Paul Reid has said.
Mr Reid said the last week should be seen as “a significant early warning” and not a time to push the panic button, but said we need to be conscious that, “cases were declining, while now they’re growing alongside a growing positivity rate”.
There are currently 413 in hospital with the virus, of which 70 are in ICU. Forty-seven people have been admitted to hospital with the virus in the last 24 hours, according to latest HSE data.
Yesterday Prof Philip Nolan said the positivity rate among people tested was rising despite the number of people being tested also increasing. Close to 24,000 people were tested on Wednesday, close to the system’s maximum daily capacity. Prof Nolan said this was a “lead indicator that things are going in the wrong direction”.
Mr Reid pointed out that unvaccinated people make up just 8pc of adults eligible for vaccination but account for two-thirds of people in ICU with the virus.
The HSE boss said these figures highlight the need to “work with and encourage” the 370,000 that are not yet fully vaccinated.
Mr Reid acknowledged that people are going back to work and having more meetings and more social gatherings, but he called for people to do these things while, “sticking to the basics”.
“It’s really about reiterating the basics - handwashing, sanitising, social distancing - for those who are vaccinated and back at work as well,” Mr Reid said on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne.
Minister Harris said Government will ask Nphet whether maintaining restrictions such as vaccine certs for entry to pubs and restaurants and keeping face masks as compulsory will be enough to proceed with the final reopening.
“When I talk to people, restaurateurs and the likes, in my constituency - and we heard from some of their rep bodies yesterday - if we gave them the option of being able to return to a more normal opening while keeping some safeguards, or not, I know which they’d choose.
“Government will ask, ‘If we did keep the vaccine cert, would that mean you could proceed?’, ‘If you kept the face masks, would that mean we could proceed?’,” Minister Harris said.
The minister said Government will seek advice from the National Immunisation Advisory committee on whether there is a basis to extend the booster programme to more of the population as cases rise and hospitalisations increase.
“I am sympathetic to NIAC as they have a lot of information and evidence to assess to give us the best decision but I think everyone would be of the view that it would be good to get that information as quickly as possible, ideally next week,” the minister said.
NIAC Chair Professor Karina Butler told the same programme that Government would have the advice on extending the booster campaign as “soon as it's ready” but would not be drawn on a timeline.
The NIAC chair said there may be many people, “maybe the bulk of the population”, for whom “this isn’t the right time [to receive boosters] and it may be beneficial to wait longer and help with the distribution of vaccines on a global scale, which we also need to think of,” Ms Butler said.
The NIAC chair said unvaccinated people are 17 times more likely to be hospitalised with the virus than those who are fully vaccinated.
Prof Butler said health officials and Government need to work to “fill the information gaps” so that the 370,000 adults that are not fully vaccinated in Ireland are given the “confidence and trust” about getting vaccinated.
“80pc of the people ending up in ICU are not fully vaccinated. Of the others, 98pc have underlying conditions, primarily conditions that impact on their ability to respond to the vaccines, that is immunocompromised.
Prof Butler said that there are “obvious reasons” for most Covid deaths in Ireland now, with the median age 82 and most of those having underlying conditions, “or because of age, their immune systems are not responding”.
Ms Butler said that there was evidence that vaccine protection against infections waned “quite quickly” to a point but that protection against serious illness declined at a much slower rate and seemed to last six to eight months before it began to decline.