The Taoiseach has said public health officials are “hugely concerned” over the levels of the UK-variant of the coronavirus in Ireland.
The National Public Health Emergency Team last night said the variant, first identified in Kent, now accounts for nearly 90% of Ireland’s cases.
Speaking as a further 57 deaths and 650 new cases were reported last night, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said the increased transmissibility of the variant is illustrated by its rapid spread through Irish households.
He said one-third of household contacts of confirmed cases are now testing positive.
Dr Gerald Barry, Assistant Professor of Virology in UCD told Newstalk that the slow decline of cases in recent weeks is likely due to the variant.
“I think it is a little bit concerning that the UK variant has become such a dominant force in the country,” he said.
“Up to 90% of cases now are being caused by the UK variant and that is naturally going to have an impact on cases and inevitably deaths as well because it is harder to suppress the UK variant.”
It comes as senior ministers prepare to discuss plans for reopening the economy over the coming months.
This evening’s meeting of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on COVID-19 will hear NPHET’s advice on the reopening of schools and the construction sector.
Schools are expected to reopen from March 1st with the Department of Housing hopeful home building can also resume.
Dr Barry said officials must be extremely careful about reopening construction.
“There is no doubt any industry you open up will contribute to people mixing,” he said.
“Therefor, when you have people mixing and you have high rates of infection in the country that is going to slow down the decrease in cases and any impact on that slowing of the decrease in cases will inevitably extend out the lockdown for everyone else.
“So, I think it needs to be very carefully thought through and very cautiously considered.”
Living with COVID-19
Last night, there were 831 COVID-19 patients in Irish hospitals and 154 people in intensive care with their symptoms.
This evening’s meeting will feed into the Government’s new ‘Living with COVID-19 plan’ which will be published next Tuesday.
While any easing of restrictions in March and April is expected to be extremely limited, new GP data suggests the number of patients suffering COVID-19 symptoms has fallen back to levels last seen before the Christmas period.
GP Buddy founder Dr Shane McKeogh said symptomatic referrals are continuing to decline.
“We ask GPs each day how many people they have referred for a COVID test and the answer coming back around the country now is, on average, just over one.
“So that is a significant drop and it is dropping week on week. It is probably a third down from where it was last week and if you went back to the beginning of January, GPS were referring eight to 10 patients each day.
He said the country is now at a level “akin to the end of November, the point where we were considering reopening hospitality.”
With reporting from Eoghan Murphy