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Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has warned that serious new restrictions would be required to contain the latest highly transmissible Covid-19 variant.

Speaking to Fianna Fail members on last night, Minister Donnelly said the true number of Covid-19 cases in the community is likely to be several hundred thousand cases, according to sources at the online meeting.

Minister Donnelly told the meeting that the current transmissibility of the variant meant that extremely restrictive measures would be needed but the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan has not advised such restrictions at this time.

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A source said: “He was clear that Holohan had not recommended bringing back any restrictions.”

It comes as the Emergency Department Taskforce is to request that public health measures are reconsidered by the Government.

Co-chairperson of the taskforce Phil Ni Sheaghdha, who said bringing back mandatory facemasks was “simple to introduce”, warned “immediate steps must be taken right now because this surge is so serious”.

Sources said Minister Donnelly told how the sub-variant is highly transmissible and “very contagious.”

He said the measures that would be needed to get this surge under control or to radically reduce the spread would be “quite serious measures.”

Although there has been a scaling back of testing in recent weeks, it’s understood Minister Donnelly said his Department and the HSE are working on a medium term plan to scale up testing, tracing and vaccination if a serious variant of concern arrives.

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It comes as the Emergency Department Taskforce is to request that public health measures are reconsidered by the Government.

The taskforce includes representatives of hospital groups, the Department of Health, patient advocates, staff bodies and the HSE.

Following a meeting on Monday, it was agreed that a letter would be sent on Monday evening calling on Minister Donnelly to consider the current public health advice around restrictions. HSE chiefs want a reintroduction of public health measures against Covid, it has emerged.

The agency’s Emergency Department Taskforce is to request that the bringing back of Covid restrictions are considered by Government.

It follows a meeting of the taskforce yesterday afternoon, to discuss the pressures on emergency departments in hospitals.

A letter requesting the reintroduction of public health measures was sent to the Minister of Health and the Chief Medical Officer yesterday evening.

Co-chairperson of the taskforce Phil Ni Sheaghdha said: “There is general concern now about the effect this latest surge of Covid is having.”

Ms Ni Sheaghdha, who believes making facemasks mandatory would be “very simple to introduce”, warned that hospitals were struggling to cope. She added that “immediate steps must be taken right now because this surge is so serious”.

The Minister for Health has been urged to respond publicly by tomorrow to the letter.

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