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Government sign off on plans to relax rules for Covid close contacts

James Ward and Cate McCurry, PA

The Government has signed off on plans to relax the rules for close contacts of Covid-19 cases, the Minister for Health has confirmed.

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

Nphet had recommended that people who are deemed close contacts but have received a booster vaccination and have no symptoms should no longer have to isolate for five days.

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Those who have not received a booster should restrict their movements for seven days.

Mr Donnelly said following the Cabinet meeting: “We got Government agreement.

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

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“What we have agreed (takes effect) from midnight tomorrow.

“From midnight Thursday they will be in place. It will really ease the burden on people right across the country.

“It’s one of the things the public health team considered is if we are relaxing the rules, there is a chance of more spread, however I think that has been more balanced against the fact the country is doing so well in terms of dealing with Omicron.

“The booster campaign has been pivotal in making sure that the critical care numbers stay down.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly announced the changes will go ahead from midnight on Thursday (Damien Eagers/PA)

“It’s too early to make definitive statements but in the round when the risk was assessed against how well Ireland was doing, it was felt that was an appropriate move at this time.

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

“We still need to do the antigen testing and still wear the higher grade masks as well.”

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

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

Mr Donnelly admitted there is “an element of risk” in relaxing Covid restrictions for close contacts.

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

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

“Before Christmas I asked for an all-hands-on-deck approach right across the healthcare community, and people stepped up in an incredible way.

“Our general practices, the doctors, nurses, our pharmacists, and everyone working in the pharmacies and the amazing people working in our vaccine centres, they stopped a lot of the other work they were doing.

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

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

“I want to give thanks to everyone involved in that programme. It has been a real national effort.”

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

Around 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 reported cases in Europe and yet, while other countries are looking at serious measures, we are looking to ease the burden on other people,” he added.

“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 which, I think, is why we are in a positive place right now.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said 10 million vaccinations have been administered in the past 12 months.

He added: “The advice has been very clear and all of this is about balance in terms of supply chains and essential services.

“There will be further meetings about the restrictions. The peak has not yet been reached. Public authorities anticipate that we will reach the peak within the next week or two.”

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