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Dr Tony Holohan urges people to avoid retail environments or mixing indoors

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Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan has urged people to avoid meeting with people from other households indoors as part of efforts to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

He has said testing centres are “very busy” but said people with Covid-19 symptoms should continue to self-isolate until they get the result of a PCR test.

His comments come as a further 13,765 new cases of Covid-19 were reported on Christmas Day, the highest single-day figure for infections in the State since the pandemic began. Saturday’s number surpassed Christmas Eve’s previously record breaking figure of 11,182 cases.

Mr Holohan said people should continue to reduce contacts and avoid crowded places “to the greatest extent possible, as we see the Omicron variant become the dominant variant of Covid-19 in Ireland. ”

“We know that this variant is more transmissible than even the highly transmissible Delta variant. As such, please do not socialise or meet indoors with people from other households.

“Avoid crowded places including retail environments,” he added encouraging online shopping where possible.

He said people should “queue outside and leave any retail environment that does not feel safe and that is not adhering to the public health guidance – implementing social distancing measures and queuing system, limiting numbers instore and staff wearing masks correctly (covering nose, mouth and chin).”

He said people who have yet to receive a booster jab should “take every measure you can to protect yourself until you are eligible to receive it.

“This includes avoiding risky environments and keeping your contacts as low as possible.”

Good protection

Mr Holohan added: “All of the available evidence indicates that a booster vaccine will offer good protection against infection with the Omicron variant.”

He also said: “If anyone experiences any symptoms of COVID-19, however mild, then it is important to self-isolate and arrange a PCR test.

“Our test centres are very busy at the moment due to the high incidence of COVID-19 across the country; however, it is important that you continue to self-isolate until you receive the result of your PCR test and further information from the HSE.”

Mr Holohan said: “If you have travelled to Ireland from overseas it is important that you take an antigen test every day for five days.”

Meanwhile, during a round-table pre-Christmas interview Taoiseach Micheál Martin was asked if the current wave of Covid-19 infections would be the last big one.

He replied said: “I’m loath to use that language but, certainly, I’d be more hopeful than not that we’d be getting better [at dealing with the virus] at this. I just don’t have the data to be definitive about the surge.”

Mr Martin agreed that some people have put forward a view that Omicron might be the last surge but said: “I’m not expert enough, to be frank, to say that definitively and we know Omicron has actually re-infected people who’ve been infected before with Delta, which opens up the horizon of potential reinfection into the future.

“The key issue would be severity, you know, in terms of if it’s much more infectious but less impactful. That could create a new horizon – a new scenario – for the future,” he said.

Mr Martin said looking back over the last year “vaccination has really been the big game changer.”

He added: “Do we really think we’d be open today in terms of retail, construction and everything else if we had 4,500 cases or 5,000 cases and no vaccination?

“So, to me, it is the big game changer.”

He said boosters are being done now and potential new vaccines for variants are being prepared and there may be an annual vaccination programme.

Mr Martin added: “I know the HSE are looking at a sort of stronger independent capacity that they can switch on and switch off vaccination programmes around this issue.”

He said anti-viral drugs are coming on stream that will “hopefully, lead to better treatments.

“So I think we’re going to get better at dealing with it. That’s how I see us coping with Covid into the future whilst allowing our full economy back.”

Mr Martin said the economy “has come roaring back since we re-opened since March” while cautioning: “We have to be careful of that too because a lot of that energy was captured or suppressed by the Covid restrictions.”

He said: “So we are in a much better position from that perspective than we would have been without vaccinations.

“You have advances in medicines for 2022. I’m more optimistic even though the current situation doesn’t reflect that.”

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External investigation into Department ‘champagne party’ needed – Minister

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Minister of State Anne Rabbitte has called for an external investigation into a “champagne party” held by staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs staff in June 2020.

The gathering, which appeared to breach Covid-19 guidance in place at the time, was “inexcusable” and Minister Simon Coveney and his department have further questions to answer, the Fianna Fáil TD told Saturday with Katie Hannon on RTÉ Radio One.

“Having a champagne reception in any government department at that time, I know over in the Department of Health where they worked tirelessly for 23, 24 hours a day, it was far from champagne they were having,” she said.

Ms Rabbitte said an internal report conducted by the department’s current secretary general was not a satisfactory way to handle the matter.

“It’s still within the same department, and we know the answer we will get. I would be one for openness and transparency … it has to be [an external report].”

She added that all departments needed to learn from the mistake.

Officials were photographed in the department celebrating Ireland’s election onto the UN Security Council, and the image was posted on Twitter by the then secretary general Niall Burgess. The tweet was later deleted. At the time of the event, there were strict restrictions on the size of gatherings due to Covid-19.

Speaking on the same programme, Labour TD Duncan Smith said people were angered at the event because June 2020 was a bleak time for most people in Ireland. He said the public had seen other incidents where politicians and others were accused of breaching Covid-19 restrictions.

“These are the elites of society … what has really hurt people is that it really got to the ‘we are all in this together’ philosophy.”

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane agreed there needed to be an independent review of the matter, adding that Mr Coveney needed to come before an Oireachtas committee and the Dáil to gave a “frank and full account” of what happened.

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Dog-owners bite back at beach rules

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Following a series of reports that An Taisce is leading the battle to ban dogs from the State’s 83 blue-flag beaches, the organisation’s Ian Diamond is feeling misunderstood.

“I don’t hate dogs”, Mr Diamond says, pointing out that Blue Flag International – the global body which governs the coveted awards – warned last year that some qualifying beaches were not honouring long-standing rules.

Under what’s known as Criterion 23, the rules declare that beach access “by dogs and other domestic animals must be strictly controlled” and that they be allowed only in “the parking areas, walkways and promenades in the inland beach areas”.

Faced with the reminder, Mr Diamond said he requested last year that local authorities get more time, as it was “not something that can be introduced immediately in the middle of a pandemic when people are under other restrictions.

“You can’t exactly introduce these things overnight, so we were flagging that,” he said, adding that Blue Flag told them to speak to people seeking blue flag status and “come back with proposals” that comply with the rule.

The issue came to national attention following a meeting of Kerry County Council this week, though it was understood then that the rule was an An Taisce demand, rather than being a Blue Flag International obligation.

Dogs and horses

Consequently, Kerry County Council now propose that dogs or horses will not be allowed on blue-flag beaches from 11am-7pm between June 1st and September 15th, or otherwise the county could lose its 14 blue flags.

However, the restrictions are unpopular with some dog-owners: “There’s a lot more important things to be worrying about than dogs on a beach,” said David Walsh, as he walked his pet, Oreo, on Salthill beach.

Dog-owners in Salthill are already not allowed to bring their dogs onto the beach between 9am and 8pm between May 1st and September 30th each year, in line with Blue Flag International’s rules, though penalties are rare.

Mr Diamond says a national application of the rules at blue-flag beaches would not “strictly prohibit dogs being on the beach” during bathing season, outside of peak hours.

Bathing season

“The blue-flag criteria would apply from June 1st to September 15th, within peak usage hours, so bathing hours – that would be mid-morning to early evening,” said the An Taisce officer.

“What it requires is that there would be rules in place in relation to dogs that say [they] should not be in the blue-flag area within those hours and within the bathing season,” Mr Diamond said.

The restriction is based on public health grounds and dates back to 2003: “Dog faeces actually contain a lot of the micro-organisms that cause illness in the same way that human waste would,” he said.

“There’s no zero-tolerance approach to this. If rules are going to be brought in, then people will be consulted as well, you know, brought in unilaterally, and it’s down to the councils responsible for the beaches to bring those in.”

Not everyone disagrees with An Taisce, or Blue Flag: “I don’t think dogs should be on the beach, because of the kids and all that. And a lot of people don’t pick up their poo afterwards,” said a man on Salthill beach.

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Jail for banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on Christmas shopping trip to Belfast

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A banned motorist from Limerick caught driving on a Christmas shopping trip to Belfast has been jailed for seven months.

Police also discovered three of Leeanne McCarthy’s children not wearing seat belts when her car was stopped on the Westlink dual carriageway.

The 41-year-old mother-of-eight initially gave officers a false identity, prosecutors said.

Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard a PSNI patrol car stopped the Ford Focus on November 26th last year.

McCarthy, with an address at Clonlough in Limerick, provided a different name and claimed she did not have her licence with her.

However, checks revealed that a month earlier she had been banned from driving for five years.

A Crown lawyer said: “Three young children were in the rear of the vehicle, none of them wearing seat belts.”

McCarthy initially claimed they only removed the safety restraints when the car came to a halt, the court heard.

Police were told that she took over driving duties from another daughter who had been tired and nearly crashed the vehicle.

McCarthy was convicted of driving while disqualified, having no insurance, obstructing police and three counts of carrying a child in the rear of a vehicle without a seat belt.

Her barrister, Turlough Madden, said she had travelled to Belfast for Christmas shopping.

Counsel told the court McCarthy spent the festive period in custody, missing out on sharing it with her eight children and four grandchildren.

“That’s been a wake-up call and significant punishment for her,” Mr Madden submitted.

“She is a mother who simply wants to go back to Limerick and not return to Northern Ireland.”

Sentencing McCarthy to five months imprisonment for the new offences, District Judge George Conner imposed a further two months by activating a previous suspended term.

Mr Conner also affirmed the five-year disqualification period and fined her £300 (€350) for the seat belt charges.

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