Ministers will meet on Friday to consider an earlier closing time for hospitality and curtailed crowds at sports events on foot of fresh advice from public health advisers, as the HSE stepped up preparations for a wave of the Omicron variant.
It is understood Ministers will consider a closing time for hospitality of as early as 5pm from next week.
Government sources said on Thursday night that the mood had “darkened” around coming weeks and that major sporting events such as the Leopardstown races and forthcoming rugby fixtures hung in the balance. There is also a question around forthcoming gigs and concerts after it emerged the Omicron variant now accounts for 27 per cent of Covid-19 cases.
The National Public Health Emergency Team met on Thursday afternoon and finalised its recommendations to Government, which are aimed at reducing socialising before and after the festive period.
People will be asked to limit their social interactions in the lead-up to Christmas, especially if there will be so-called intergenerational mixing. Sources say that self-testing and PCR testing will be key to mitigating any spike in cases over Christmas.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin is expected to return from a European Union summit in Brussels on Friday afternoon and a Cabinet meeting is expected soon after.
A tightening of rules around close contacts and the accompanying requirement to isolate is also expected.
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The prospect of tighter restrictions grew on Thursday night as the HSE accelerated plans to give third Covid-19 booster vaccines to more people at a faster pace and warned that the highly contagious Omicron variant could push even record testing to its limit.
The HSE said it was bringing forward plans to administer booster doses to people aged between 40 and 49 by three weeks, starting on December 27th, and that it would be increasing Covid-19 PCR testing to close to 300,000 a week in January.
Damien McCallion, lead for testing at the HSE, said it had already increased testing capacity to 250,000 PCR tests and 100,000 antigen tests a week, and warned that a surge in Omicron cases could drive even increased testing to capacity next month.
“There is going to be a peak for every system, not just for laboratories but also in terms of staffing,” he said.
He said the HSE was working with the Department of Health to consider options for how best to maximise and prioritise testing should the Omicron variant overwhelm the system with new cases over the coming weeks.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the country was facing “an urgent situation” with Omicron “spreading rapidly” as he disclosed figures showing a sharp increase in infections caused by the new variant in just a matter of days.
Analysis of new Covid-19 cases with the identifying marker for the variant showed that Omicron now accounted for 27 per cent of all new cases, up from 1 per cent of all new cases last week, 5 per cent last weekend and 14 per cent on Tuesday.
Omicron has pushed new daily Covid-19 infections in Britain to their highest level of the 21-month pandemic.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid defended the health service’s call to GP surgeries to defer routine care in order to focus on the rollout of boosters, saying there was a “risk-benefit” behind the approach to “protect as many people as we can”.
Dr Colm Henry, the HSE’s chief clinical officer, said boosters were a “whole healthcare system priority” in the face of the evidence that Omicron poses a threat to vulnerable individuals, older people and to healthcare systems.
He warned the health system was already “very overheated” with Covid-19 before the arrival of Omicron, while Mr Reid said the HSE was at “extremely high risk levels” going into “the wave of Omicron”.