The chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has appealed to parents to follow new public health measures introduced for children as part of a concerted effort to drive down Covid case numbers in children.
From today, pupils from third class upwards are required to wear face masks in schools, with exemptions in place for children who can provide a medical certificate.
Children aged nine and over are also required to wear masks on public transport, in retail and other indoor public settings, under the new Government guidelines.
In a letter distributed to all primary schools, Dr Holohan urged parents to reduce social contact between now and the Christmas break.
The letter was sent to schools on Tuesday night and principals have been asked to distribute it to all parents.
The decision to introduce masks in schools comes on the back of the latest epidemiological data which shows high rates of infection among five-11 year olds, who have not yet been vaccinated.
Dr Holohan published a series of similar public health messages in relation to primary school children on social media on Tuesday night. There were a substantial number of responses from parents – particularly of nine year olds – who objected to their children wearing masks.
He said that the National Public Health Emergency Team would review the requirement for children to wear masks in primary school in mid-February.
In the letter Dr Holohan said there had been significant and rapid deterioration in the epidemiological situation over a very short period of time. He said schools are “at the heart of our communities” and play a “fundamental role in the social lives and wellbeing of our children”.
“It is therefore imperative that we move quickly as soon as we notice a significant change in incidence,” he wrote.
Dr Holohan outlined the new recommendations around avoiding indoor birthday parties, playdates and sleepovers, and indoor community gatherings. He also outlined the updated advice to parents.
“I am keenly aware that these measures are not what any of us want to hear, particularly at this time of year. I know this is an additional burden at what has been a very difficult time for all of us, particularly those of us with young families,” he said.
“That being said, parents have a key role to play in reducing transmission within and between households.”
Dr Holohan acknowledged that young children often display respiratory symptoms at this time of year and it gets “increasingly difficult to isolate and arrange PCR tests repeatedly”, but he said “this remains an essential measure to protect families and the wider community”.
“When incidence of disease is as high as it is at the moment across the country, it means that the force of infection is pushed down through the unvaccinated population and into our unvaccinated young children,” Dr Holohan said.
“ While we know that most in this age group will experience a very mild form of this disease if they pick it up, for a small few, they may become severely ill.
He added: “I am hopeful that if we all make a concerted effort to follow these measures for at least the next two weeks, we can make a real difference to incidence of disease in this cohort and in the wider public.”
The new measures for children were announced on Tuesday evening and came into effect on Wednesday morning, the fast pace of which has been criticised by parents, principals and unions.
Parentline, a charity helpline for parents, said it had received a deluge of calls in recent days on the issue from parents who are concerned about the impact of the new restrictions on their children “developmentally and emotionally”.
Chief executive of the charity Aileen Hickie said parents understood the importance of keeping schools open and that Covid was spreading rapidly and of the need to stem outbreaks, but they were concerned about developmental outcomes especially for children with hearing difficulties or with special needs.
While the new measures for children were guidelines and school principals did have discretion for cases of complex concern, Ms Hickie said that “once again” the responsibility was on parents to ensure their child wore a mask.
When asked about the letter from Dr Holohan to parents which called on parents to halt social activities, Ms Hickie said that parents were now being required to play the role of “social police” for their children.
Parents knew they had to “go with their own gut” and that they knew what was right and what was wrong, they would “lead from the front”, she told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.
However, she added that families were not going to “drop everything”, but they would prioritise.