The Irish government is set to tighten lockdown restrictions including the closure of schools as rampant rates of Covid infections threaten to overwhelm the health service.
The Cabinet will meet on Wednesday morning to decide on whether to keep the schools closed until February as part of wider measures to control the third wave of the Covid pandemic which health chiefs have described as “extremely worrying and dangerous.”
Schools were originally scheduled to reopen next Monday but government sources say it is highly likely they will remain closed for the rest of this month.
The government introduced a second nationwide lockdown in October which succeeded in reducing Covid rates to the lowest among EU states when the restrictions were lifted in the first week of December.
For most of last month, the daily rate of infection averaged 300.
On Monday there were 6,110 cases reported, which is almost twice the peak reached in the first wave last March. The 14 day incidence rate is now 583 per 100,000 compared to 110 per 100,000 in mid-December.
There are now 776 Covid patients in hospital and 74 in intensive care. Just ten days ago there were 29 people in intensive care and under 233 in hospital.
The country’s most senior health official has said at the current growth rate, the hospital system could reach capacity within the next two weeks. Ireland has one of the lowest rates of critical care beds in Europe at 6.5 per 100,000 compared with an average of 11.5.
Almost all non-Covid related surgeries and treatments have been postponed across the country’s hospitals.
Health experts and some opposition parties have blamed the surge on the government’s decision to open pubs, restaurants and the retail sector as well from the first week of December as well as allowing home visits later in the month. At the time, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) warned the government not to open the hospitality sector.
Almost immediately there were reports of widespread flouting of socialising rules across pubs and restaurants.
The government was forced to shut down the hospitality sector on Christmas eve and all non-essential retail last week amid escalating numbers.
Over the past two weeks the police raided a number of illegal shebeens across the country including on New Year’s Eve a garden shed in county Kildare, which has been converted into a makeshift pub.
About fifteen revellers were found on the premises, which had leather sofas, a pool table and slot machine. They all face hefty fines when they appear in court over the next few months.
Leo Varadkar, the Deputy Prime Minister, has warned that the current lockdown could extend well in February or until such time that the vaccination programme has covered the elderly and the vulnerable.
The government had been criticised for the initial slow rollout of the Pfizer vaccine as only 4,000 doses were administered last week.
However, Stephen Donnelly, the Health Minister, said an earlier than expected shipment meant that 35,000 people would receive the vaccine this week compared to an initial estimate of 20,000. He expects that 40,000 per week will receive the vaccine for the remainder of this month which will cover all carehome patients.