Ireland is in a "very uncertain and unstable position" due to the high incidence of Covid-19, the State's chief medical officer has said.
Dr Tony Holohan said the high levels of virus is being driven by the "highly transmissible" Delta variant.
“This is a matter of very significant concern as we wait for more evidence relating to the Omicron variant and the impact it may have to emerge,” he said in a post on Twitter.
Dr Holohan said that based on the evidence available to the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), they believe the “public health measures we are so familiar with will work to slow and stop the transmission of the Omicron variant, as well as the Delta variant”.
He added that “early indications” suggest a booster dose of the Covid-19 vaccine will offer “good protection against infection from Delta and Omicron”.
“If you are eligible for a booster dose of Covid-19 vaccine, then please take the opportunity to receive your vaccine as soon as it is available to you,” Dr Holohan said.
“Similarly, if you are yet to receive a primary dose of Covid-19 vaccine then please come forward as soon as possible.”
Speaking about the festive period, Dr Holohan said they are “well aware” that Christmas Eve is in two weeks, “a time of year when we all look forward to coming together with friends and family”.
“You can take measures today and in the next few days that will ensure the safest possible interaction with your loved ones over Christmas,” he said.
Dr Holohan urged members of the public to “risk assess” the environments they plan to be in over the next two weeks and consider if they “offer the opportunity to protect yourself and each layer of the public health advice”.
He added that the public should try to avoid crowds and reduce contacts; wear a mask including in crowded outdoor environments; keep your distance if you feel unsafe feel empowered to leave; open windows and avoid poorly ventilated indoor spaces; and clean your hands regularly.
Dr Holohan was speaking after 4,115 confirmed cases of Covid-19 were reported on Friday.
As of 8am, 511 Covid-19 patients were in hospitalis, of whom 110 were in ICU.
Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, two further coronavirus-related deaths have been confirmed and another 1,806 cases of the virus were notified.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin has said that the HSE is doing everything in its power to roll out the booster programme as quickly and safely as possible whilst acknowledging certain “issues around systems” which has seen people sent away from vaccination centres in Dublin and Cork.
Mr Martin was in Cork City Hall on Friday evening to receive his booster jab. He stressed that the HSE could have given out the third jab by appointment but instead widened out the programe to facilitate walk ins.
“The booster campaign is up to 1.1 million people. Hopefully before Christmas we will get that close to one and half million. That will be challenging. I would like to pay tribute to the HSE and staff and the volunteers out there. Anti virals are on the way as well.
“So I think 2022 gives us hope as well but in the interim we have a very serious variant. In Scotland and the UK they are estimating that it (Omicron) will take over Delta and it is more infectious in Delta.
“We are doing everything possible on that front (re demand for the booster). The HSE has opened up a range of channels this time around. They have also opened up to the age cohorts together in parallel, as opposed to in sequence.
“It is not just by appointment. It would have been far easier for them (the HSE). You wouldn’t have had then the situations that occurred in a small number of vaccination centres. The vast majority of vaccination centres went off well. 40,000 people were vaccinated across the country yesterday. So there are pluses and minuses in the approach being adopted.”
Mr Martin said that he was attempting to get across a “sense of urgency” in relation to the public ting for their booster vaccines.
He said obviously the HSE accept that there are “some issues around systems” but fundamentally the entire effort has been about getting as many people boosted “as we possibly can as quickly as we can.”
Meanwhile, he indicated that the advice that passengers coming from the UK take antigen tests every day for five days was advice rather than regulation because that is the “practical approach.”
“It is an extra protection for themselves, their families and their loved ones. I am concerned about the Omicron variant in terms of the high volume that may emerge here. Its doubling time seems to be shorter and it seems to have an advantage over Delta.
The evidence so far seems to be that the vaccine would protect against Omicron in respect of serious illness, disease, hospitalisation and ICU. That would be good but we need more data.”
He encouraged members of the public to present for their booster vaccine when they become eligible to receive the jab.
Mr Martin added that a week was “a long time in Covid” and that he couldn’t rule out further restrictions.
“We have a series of restriction on place until the 9th of January. One can never rule out anything is the honest answer in relation to Covid. What is important is that we adhere to the guidelines that are in place. To be fair to people over the last numbers of weeks they have taken the message and the advice on board.
The economy has bounced back well because of decisions taken by people. It is a huge challenge to people. For children in particular it is not normal. But that is nature of a one in a hundred year event. We have a new variant. Just as we overcame Alpha and Delta we can overcome this as well.”
Meanwhile, members of the public who presented for the booster vaccine at Cork City Hall seemed pleased with the speed of the service today.
Maria Mackey from Carrigtwohill said she waited for around 45 minutes for her vaccine.
“It (Covid) has been tough for everybody. I am delighted to receive the booster.”
Catherine Kirwan from Cork said that she was in and out in about an hour.
“We are all fed up with Covid but it is what it is. A friend of mine texted me (about the walk ins) and I immediately texted friends to let them know. I am relieved, delighted and grateful to have gotten the booster.”
Earlier, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said that public health doctors were slow to recognise the benefit of antigen testing and more public awareness is needed on how to use them.
New advice issued by the Government on international travel has recommended that passengers arriving from Britain should undertake daily antigen tests for five consecutive days beginning on the day of arrival.
It follows an updated public health assessment in relation to the Omicron variant from the National Public Health Emergency Team to the Government.
The Department of Health on Thursday night said five further cases of the strain, first identified in South Africa, had been detected in the State, bringing the total to date to six.
Mr Harris, a former minister for health, said officials are now examining how an improved campaign on using antigen tests might be rolled out.
“It’s a statement of fact that our public health doctors were slow perhaps to see – and I don’t say that critically – to see the benefit in antigen testing as an extra layer [of public health measures],” he said.
“They have now recommended it in certain scenarios and I think there is an onus now on a very comprehensive public awareness campaign.”
Speaking on Newstalk's The Pat Kenny Show on Friday, the Minister said his €9 million free antigen testing programme across higher education institutions followed advice that "the student population is more likely to be active . . . socialising. And we do want people to be able to safely live their lives."
HSE lead on vaccinations Damien McCallion said the health service was planning to recruit more vaccinators and would look at operating longer walk-in periods.
The new advice on international travel does not recommend any curbs on Christmas travel to or from Ireland.
The statement added that Government communications on Covid will be updated to emphasise that everyone should take account of their overall health, their vaccine status and the spread of Omicron in other countries before they decide to travel.
The current requirement for all overseas passengers to have a “not-detected” pre-departure Covid test (antigen or PCR, depending on vaccine or recovery status) will continue to apply.
Airlines and ferry companies must continue to check pre-departure test compliance, with spot-checking by border management officials also maintained at points of arrival.