Growing alarm as new strain of the virus is found in east of the country
Growing alarm about the spiralling spread of Covid-19 may force the Government to order the closure of non-essential shops from St Stephen’s Day.
The latest blow comes as many people are cancelling Christmas plans and businesses are braced for weeks of lockdown.
The highly infectious strain of the virus – which the UK blames for its rocketing case numbers – has been found in the east of the country and looks set to take hold.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) met yesterday and are recommending the Government impose tougher restrictions amid panic over the soaring spread of the virus.
“Our level of concern continues to escalate,” he warned.
It is understood this involves telling non-essential retail they will have to shut down again from December 26.
There were 13 more Covid-19 related deaths yesterday and 938 cases while the R number – signalling how fast the virus is spreading – is now higher than in the dark days of March, with daily cases currently jumping 7-9pc.
Prof Philip Nolan, who tracks the virus, said the restrictions announced on Tuesday, closing pubs and restaurants from this evening and restricting home visits and inter-county travel, will not be enough to stop the country heading into a crisis.
Dr Holohan blamed the upsurge on socialising, particularly since pubs and restaurants reopened, for the huge growth in infection and is the dominant cause of the rise in cases rather than the new strain of virus.
Prof Nolan said he is not confident the measures announced earlier this week go far enough and are sufficient to bring the R number below 1.
“We are starting from an R number that is 1.6 or could be 1.8,” he said.
Earlier Prof Nolan warned the virus is spreading among all age groups and spreading to older people who are vulnerable to the virus early on compared to the last surge in October.
Hospitalisations are rising, although admissions to intensive care are declining.
There were 251 patients in hospital yesterday and 25 in intensive care.
The fear is hospitals will be overwhelmed as more patients who are seriously ill have to be admitted at a time when people with other illnesses crowd our Emergency Departments after Christmas.
Asked why hospitality is being targeted for closures when HSE figures yesterday showed no outbreaks in pubs or restaurants last week, Dr Holohan said the significant rise in cases coincided with the first week such businesses were allowed to reopen.
He again urged the public: “Revise your Christmas plans to ensure social contacts are limited and that hand hygiene, physical distance, ventilation and face-covering measures are in place if you must have visitors to your home.”
Cillian De Gascun of the National Virus Reference Laboratory confirmed “preliminary data would suggest, based on a selection of samples analysed from the weekend, that the novel variant from the UK is already present in Ireland.
“However, given the timeline of the samples analysed, it would seem that the novel variant is not solely responsible for the recent increase in case numbers seen in Ireland.”
They accounted for around 10pc of the samples they had analysed and this is likely to grow, he added.
Northern Ireland’s Department of Health last night also confirmed a positive test for the new variant of the coronavirus first detected in the UK.
Earlier, the HSE said it expects to receive around 40,000 doses of the vaccine over the first week of its roll-out, beginning with the initial batch of 9,750 which will arrive on St Stephen’s Day.
Residents and workers in long-term care as well as frontline staff in vaccination sites in Beaumont Hospital, St James’s Hospital, Cork University Hospital and University Hospital Galway will be the first to be offered the jab across a “three-week sweep”.
At the end of December daily cases could be as high as 1,000 and soar to 1,500 in the first week of the year.
In order to cope, the HSE is only to test the close contacts of people who are found to have the infection once, instead of twice.