The Irish government announced strict new limits on the hospitality sector and home visits to try to push down COVID-19 infection rates after officials said the new Omicron variant was likely to add to pressure on the health service.
Ireland has been reporting COVID-19 case numbers near record highs since early November, even though 91% of eligible people over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated.
The death rate has been far lower than during earlier waves and case numbers have stabilised. But health officials are concerned that even if Omicron does not evade vaccines, it could significantly increase already high infection numbers.
“If Omicron takes hold and if it is more transmissible, the potential for a very serious crisis is obvious,” Prime Minister Micheal Martin said in a televised address, saying that he had received “very stark” advice from health officials.
“The risk associated with proceeding into the Christmas period without some restrictions… is just too high,” Martin said.
Under the measures that will be in place from Tuesday until Jan. 9, indoor events will have to operate at 50% capacity, a measure promoters say will make concerts unprofitable.
Bars and restaurants, which have been subject to various levels of restrictions since the start of the pandemic, must not accept bookings for more than six people and must only offer table service, the government said.
People should only welcome visitors from a maximum of three other households to their home, it said.
Nightclubs, which opened for the first time in over 18 months in October, will have to close under the new rules.
“It is utterly devastating,” said Angela Dorgan, Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts lobby group, which has said restrictions during the pandemic have been unfair to the arts and nightlife.
Martin said the government would ensure that the entertainment sector had the necessary financial support.
Photo – A pedestrian passes by a closed pub in Dublin City, Ireland. EPA-EFE/Aidan Crawley