It’s the week before Christmas but the festive mood is dampened again with grim warnings about the rising spread of Covid-19.
Northern Ireland is enduring a hospital overcrowding crisis with a far higher infection rate.
The fear is this is where hospitals in the south are heading, with more distressing scenes in early January.
What picture is likely to emerge as Christmas socialising ramps up and more people are travelling over the Border from today?
The 14-day incidence in mid and east Antrim was more than 500 per 100,000 this week.
This compares with 23.6 per 100,000 in Clare and 27.6 in Cork.
Moving northwards to Border counties there is cause for concern. Donegal has the highest rate at 246.9 per 100,000 in the Republic, followed by Louth at 207.9. Cavan’s rate is 154.9.
Travel essential for work and education has been ongoing throughout lockdown and in more recent weeks. But from today Christmas visits and homecomings will be allowed where people run the risk of bringing the infection with them. The advice remains to not make the journey unless absolutely necessary. It will be left to people to make their own personal judgments.
All of the phased exit from lockdown in the south will have been completed by today. Northern Ireland ended its circuit breaker last Friday and will introduce a six-week lockdown from St Stephen’s Day.
Another set of restrictions are to begin here from December 31, brought forward from January 6. A January lockdown looms.
Much will depend on how people observe the rules on mixing, particularly where vulnerable people are involved.
The aim is to avoid Ireland once again being in the Covid-19 danger zone.
Northern Ireland’s hospitals have borne the brunt of this wave, with 17 ambulances with patients lined up outside Antrim Area Hospital earlier this week and another 43 on trolleys.
The A&E numbers have also been rising here in the past week and in recent days were at their highest since the start of the pandemic.
The toll winter takes, particularly on people with respiratory illness, is inescapable.
Yesterday there were 200 Covid-19 patients in hospital here and 31 in intensive care.
The pressure point could come after Christmas, although the lack of flu will help alleviate some of the strain. But a high number of people who develop serious illness due to Covid-19 could leave the intensive care units under severe strain.
Big fear is the lag effect
Dr Colm Henry of the HSE said yesterday that there are people infected with the virus now who don’t know it. Some of these people will be sick enough to be hospitalised in two weeks, or maybe even in intensive care in three weeks.
A major effort will be made to clear as many hospital beds as possible but the losers in this kind of scenario are patients whose surgery has been put on hold.
The HSE said that no patients have been transferred south so far. However, three two-person national ambulance crews from the Republic will lend their services in the North this weekend.
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