Senior officials have been warned the Covid-19 pandemic has taken an unexpected turn for the worse, The Irish Times has learned.
A briefing for secretaries general of Government departments and political aides held on Tuesday was told the disease is growing again, and that the R number, a measure of how many people are infected as a result of a positive case, is above one.
The briefing was given by Dr Ronan Glynn, the deputy chief medical officer, and Prof Philip Nolan, chairman of the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Group, to the Government’s Covid-19 Oversight Group.
Although Ministers insisted on Wednesday a further planned easing of restrictions from October 22nd remains on track, the nature of the warning will change the dynamic when it comes to the next phase of reopening.
The immediate cause for concern is a batch of data relating to case numbers last week that revealed trends that caused concern for the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).
Wednesday’s meeting was told that demand for testing, testing positivity and hospitalisations are all rising on an unexpected trajectory. It is thought this could be being driven by increased socialisation, more indoor meet-ups and slippages on infection-prevention behaviours.
A Department of Health briefing on Budget 2022 measures that was due to take place on Wednesday has been cancelled as Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is experiencing “mild symptoms of Covid-19”.
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“As per public health advice, Minister Donnelly immediately self-isolated and arranged a test which has returned a not-detected result,” the department said in a statement.
“Minister Donnelly will continue to follow the public health advice (including working from home) and encourages anyone who experiences symptoms of Covid-19 to self-isolate and get tested straight away.”
Curbs to be removed
The officials were told that waning immunity from the vaccine may not be driving the rise, although it is likely to come into contention as a factor to be considered when decisions are being made on the next phase of reopening, on October 22nd.
After this date, requirements on physical distancing, mask wearing in some settings, limits on events and restrictions on wedding attendances are set to be removal, as is the requirement to produce a vaccine cert to access most activities or events.
The rise in cases is being seen across all age groups, the meeting was told, suggesting it is not solely being driven by waning vaccine protection, if it is at all.
It is understood there was no explicit discussion of the next phase of reopening at the meeting, with Nphet due to meet to formulate its advice next Monday. The meeting was also told it is not clear whether the current rise in cases is transient or a more lasting step-change, with more data needed.
Government sources emphasised that the meeting was not about next week, but about data from last week. Although no advice has been given, and the specific question of the next phase of reopening has not been addressed, news of Nphet’s concern comes at a key point as preparations are made for moving to the next phase of unwinding restrictions.
Sources pointed to remarks by the Taoiseach on Wednesday that Covid-19 is still present, and that people should not allow themselves to become complacent, and that the cause behind the rise in hospitalisations and positive swabs was being examined by experts.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the removal of Covid-19 restrictions will go ahead on October 22nd unless there was “compelling evidence” not to do so.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s News at One, Mr Coveney said the Government would listen to advice from the experts before finalising any decision.
Responding to concerns about rising positivity rates, the Minister said chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, senior Nphet members and civil servants were assessing the situation in hospitals, intensive care units and in the community.
“It is clear that this pandemic is not over. We still have a lot of Covid in the community,” he said.
The vaccination programme had provided a high level of protection but it did not mean that people could let down their guard, he warned.