COVID-19 in Ireland: How do we approach Omicron?

7 January 2022

Between Christmas Day 2021 and 2 January 2022, Ireland experienced more cases than it did in the entirety of 2020 – a direct legacy of the Omicron variant’s transmissibility. Ireland’s 14-day incidence rate on Wednesday stood at 4,211 per 100,000 and the 7-day confirmed case average was 19,390. Both represent significant increases on the week prior where these figures totalled 2,086 per 100,000 and 9,259 respectively.

With Omicron, the Government is operating in a strange flux where case numbers are likely “substantially higher” than is being reported. Yet while hospitalisations are concerning at 941, ICU figures remain stable by comparison and the majority of those in ICU with COVID-19 are infected with the Delta variant, and/or unvaccinated. In other words, while evidence points to the Omicron variant being much less severe than the Delta variant, case numbers are stratospheric, testing capacity is over-extended, and high hospitalisation rates are straining the health service. 

However, Ireland has the second highest rate of vaccination uptake for both primary vaccination and booster vaccination in the EU for those aged over 18. Consequently, the Government cannot readily impose further restrictions that would significantly limit the spread of infection since vaccination was heavily framed as the avenue out of an endless cycle of lockdowns. Hence, while case numbers and hospitalisation rates are high, stable ICU rates and extraordinary levels of vaccination make it difficult to justify new restrictions that would limit transmission in the Community beyond those restrictions already imposed. 

Earlier this week, Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan told the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, that he does not believe further restrictions will be necessary next week. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, schools have been ordered to reopen as planned despite push back from Teacher Unions. Meanwhile, the Cabinet decided yesterday on new international travel rules that mean vaccinated passengers no longer need to show evidence of a negative PCR test, only their Digital COVID-19 Certificate for entry into the country. It has also been announced that updated Digital COVID-19 travel Certificates are being issued to those with boosters from this week.

Currently, the Government also faces pressure from businesses to change rules for close contacts as surging case numbers have resulted in increasing staff shortages. The Taoiseach has asserted that the Government is “fully aware of the challenges” posed by the current requirements for close contacts to restrict movements. As such, the Government has asked NPHET to review most recent advice for self-isolation and restricted movements for those who are fully vaccinated close contacts. 

Meanwhile, the Government has opted to accelerate the vaccination campaign both in terms of providing primary vaccination to children aged between 5 and 11 and in terms of providing boosters to all those aged 16 and over earlier than anticipated. On Wednesday, the Cabinet also approved the Minister of Health’s plans to purchase €90 million worth of new anti-viral COVID-19 medication.

The pandemic landscape continues to evolve at speed requiring constant monitoring and quick decision-making. However, there appears to be a sun rising on the horizon. Thus far, Omicron has proven to be less severe than previous variants. So long as severe infections remain relatively low and the health service avoids being over-run, it is possible that further easing of restrictions may soon come once infection rates begin to die down once again into Spring.