Republic of Ireland news

New Covid-19 variant ‘likely' already in Ireland, says Health Minister

Republic's Health Minister Stephen Donnelly. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire

The Health Minister has said it is “likely” that the new Omicron variant is already in Ireland.

Stephen Donnelly said on Monday that there are already some suspected cases of the new Covid-19 variant in Ireland.

He said that genome sequencing is currently taking place on the suspect cases.

“I think it is likely at this point that we will be identifying cases here in the coming days.

“The working assumption at this stage would be that at least some of these, it is likely, will be sequenced as the new variant.”

The health minister said that he has been speaking to Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan in recent days to discuss the situation.

“He is very concerned,” Mr Donnelly said.

“What we now need to do is wait and see what the science says.

“There’s a lot of different hypotheses but what we need is some definitive evidence around: is it more transmissible or less? Is it more severe? Does it make people sicker? And one of the big questions obviously is: what impact does the vaccines have on it?”

Mr Donnelly, alongside Dr Holohan, will meet with Taoiseach Micheal Martin, Tanaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan on Monday.

The health minister did not rule out recommendations for fresh restrictions being presented to a meeting of the Cabinet on Tuesday.

“There may well be recommendations that go to Cabinet tomorrow, but at this point, I can tell you that there are no very major changes being proposed in terms of societal measures or economic measures,” Mr Donnelly said.

He also indicated that the possibility of further restrictions being imposed on travellers into Ireland would be discussed on Monday.

“These are exactly the things that we’ll be talking to the Chief Medical Officer about today. I wouldn’t like to pre-empt that conversation at this point,” he said.

On Saturday, the Irish Department of Health announced its own measures to mitigate against Omicron, including mandatory home quarantine regardless of vaccine status.

Visa requirements have been updated and the advisory to avoid non-essential travel has been applied to those countries concerned, including Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Returning Irish residents will be required to undergo strict home quarantine regardless of vaccine/recovery/test status, and undergo PCR testing during quarantine.

The exemption of the common travel area from new UK Covid-19 restrictions against the Omicron variant was welcomed over the weekend.

Mr Donnelly said that any restrictions on travellers coming into Ireland from the UK would also be discussed on Monday, but no decision had yet been made.

He told RTE radio that there were some tentative signs that the Covid-19 situation in Ireland has been improving in recent days.

“The indications over the previous few days have been very encouraging and indeed are encouraging. If we weren’t dealing with this new variants, I think people would be very cautiously optimistic.

“Now of course, with this new variant. There is a big question mark.”

He stressed that the situation remains uncertain.

“There is no Government right now that can really predict what measures might be in place in four weeks’ time, because of this,” he told RTE radio.

On Sunday, Dr Holohan said: “While there is much attention on new variants, incidence of the Delta variant of Covid-19 remains too high in Ireland, with widespread infection in the community.

“We all know the actions to prevent the spread of Covid-19 – good hand hygiene, wearing a face covering, meeting others outdoors where possible, and when indoors opening windows and ensuring good ventilation, keeping your distance and, of course, coming forward for vaccination and booster dose when eligible.”

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