Covid rules to ease close contacts

The Health Minister has confirmed that the government has signed a plan to relax the rules for close contacts of COVID cases.

Stephen Donnelly advised cabinet on Wednesday from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) and changes to the isolation rules will now take effect from midnight on Thursday.

Nphet recommended that people who are considered close contacts but have received a booster vaccination and have no symptoms should no longer be isolated for five days.

People who have not received a booster should limit their movements for seven days.

Mr Donnelly said after the cabinet meeting: “We’ve got the government agreement.

“There is a lot of support for changes to the isolation rules. I think it will make a big difference to people.

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Health Minister Stephen Donnelly announced the changes would go ahead at midnight on Thursday (Damien Eggers/PA)

“We have agreed (effective) from midnight yesterday.

“They will be at their place from midnight on Thursday. This will really ease the burden on the people across the country.

“It’s one of the things that the public health team has considered that if we’re easing the rules, there’s a potential for more outbreaks, although I think it’s more balanced against the fact that the country’s Omicron Is doing so well in terms of handling .

“The booster campaign has been instrumental in ensuring that critical care numbers remain low.

“It is too early to make a definitive statement but at a time when risk assessments were made of how well Ireland was doing, it was felt this was an appropriate move at this point in time.

“I know this will come as a relief to a lot of people who really want to go back about their lives.

“We still need to do antigen testing and still have to wear high-grade masks.”

Mr Donnelly said an online portal to allow people to upload positive antigen test results and close contact details would be put in place over the next few days.

He said the Health Services Executive (HSE) is working through the final logistics and technical requirements before they go live.

Mr Donnelly acknowledged there is “an element of risk” in easing COVID restrictions for close contacts.

“We have seen the advice of the ECDC (European Center for Disease Prevention and Control) and undoubtedly if we relax the rules on close contacts, it adds an element of risk,” he said.

“I think what we are seeing now is the support of the booster campaign and the support of the national effort.

“Before Christmas I asked for a broader approach in the healthcare community, and people stepped up in incredible ways.

“Our usual practices, the doctors, the nurses, our pharmacists, and everyone who works in pharmacies and the wonderful people working in our vaccine centers, they stopped a lot of other work that they were doing.

“They vaccinated so many people. We are second in Europe, we were leading in Europe for a long time.

“We vaccinated as many vulnerable groups as possible before this Omicron rocket took off. We knew it would happen.

“I want to thank everyone involved in that program. It has been a real national effort.”

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Stephen Donnelly said easing rules for close contacts ‘will make a big difference to people’ (Niel Carson/PA)

About 2.5 million booster jabs have been administered, and Mr Donnelly said it is the success of the booster campaign that has allowed the government to change the rules.

“We have the second highest number of cases in Europe and yet, while other countries are looking at serious measures, we want to reduce the burden on other people,” he said.

“It is a testament to a national effort.

“We have a lot of people out of work or people who want to go about their lives. It’s quite a burden. People have followed it very closely, I think, so we’re in a positive place right now. “

Taoiseach Michael Martin said 10 million vaccinations have been done in the past 12 months.

He said: “The advice is very clear and it is all about balance in terms of supply chain and essential services.

“There will be more meetings regarding the restrictions. The summit has not yet been reached. Public officials predict that we will peak in the next week or two.”