Rules on social distancing could be relaxed as part of a significant shift in how Covid-19 is managed in the State, away from regulation and population-wide restrictions and towards a focus on public health advice and personal judgment.
However, draft plans drawn up by public health officials as part of a new roadmap for easing restrictions say any such changes would be dependent on strict targets being met.
Outline plans discussed last month envisage that moving to this point would be dependent on the disease remaining under control, and extremely high levels of vaccination – upwards of 85-90 per cent of the over-16s. The reproduction or R number, a measure of how many other people a case infects, would have to be close to 1, with key indicators showing the disease was being suppressed, and that hospitals weren’t struggling. Variants of greater transmissibility or vaccine resistance could also hold back progress.
Among the options discussed by officials was removing the requirement for distancing and mask-wearing outside or in private indoor settings once these targets are reached. Officials also considered setting a physical distance of one metre in workplaces, indoor public spaces and healthcare settings until spring 2022. Masks for shops and public transport and in healthcare settings are set to be retained until at least next spring.
Over the longer term, the focus will shift to personal judgment, with individuals expected to rapidly self-isolate if they become symptomatic, while promotion of primary and booster vaccinations against Covid and the flu will be central parts of the strategy. People will be encouraged to wear masks and physically distance based on an individual risk assessment, and observe hand and respiratory etiquette.
Consideration is also being given to narrower terms for Covid-19 testing. However, strong public health, testing and contact-tracing capacities would be retained for rapid management of outbreaks.
However, there is “profound concern” among public health officials that deterioration in the disease in the coming weeks could make progress harder to achieve, especially if basic hygiene measures are abandoned while vaccination is still under way.
There is concern the current Delta wave could harm the chances of progressing. It is expected there could be in the region of 400 people in hospital with Covid at the end of the month, at which point Health Service Executive chief executive Paul Reid said the impact on the healthcare system becomes harder to manage. “It’s looking. . . that we could get to 400 soon, because of the lag effect of these consistent high case numbers,” Mr Reid told The Irish Times on Sunday, but he said there was no current need to scale back routine health services on a national level. There were 248 people in hospital on Sunday morning being treated for the virus, of whom 48 were in ICU.