Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic was how long it lasted here and then how quickly most restrictions were lifted.
It was almost like someone had turned the lights back on and we were kind of surprised that we had been stuck in a dark place for so long and the virus was hiding in the shadows.
Some had grown accustomed to the captivity of strict social distancing rules, Covid Digital Certs and mandatory mask-wearing.
Sometimes I felt like it would never end. But although it has largely done so in many ways, we must not forget that there are still more than 600 cases in hospital and more than 50 of them still in intensive care.
The main virus threat has gripped Ireland for almost two years, in a way that is deeply unpleasant and has also made daily life surreal. It should come as no surprise that some people take time to adjust to returning to a normal life.
People will continue to wear masks even where it is not mandatory, to protect themselves and also to protect others. In particular, in public transport, it will always be advised and it will be compulsory in health establishments.
I’ve had many communications this week from people who are concerned about the decision to end mask-wearing requirements and don’t see the logic at this point.
A number of health organizations – Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, the Irish Heart Foundation, the Asthma Society of Ireland, the Irish Kidney Association, the Irish Cancer Society and those representing people with COPD – wanted the government is delaying the decision.
They and some doctors have expressed the view that the move should be postponed for a few months, until the flu season is over and the overall number of cases declines further.
People have taken to wearing masks. But they also hinder full human interaction. Ultimately, the government relied on the recommendation of the National Public Health Emergency Team to end most of the remaining restrictions.
Ending mask mandates, reducing PCR testing and relaxing close contact rules will come into effect on Monday, February 28. Health Minister Stephen Donnelly is expected to sign the relevant regulations tomorrow.
People under 55 will no longer be offered a PCR test, nor will those who are fully boosted over 55, with some exceptions. Close contacts will not have to self-isolate unless they have symptoms.
Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organization’s special envoy on Covid-19, has urged countries not to dismantle measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus too quickly. He called for continued testing, mask-wearing and protecting those most at risk.
Dr Nabarro said he was very nervous, that even in Ireland the rush to dismantle was going a bit fast and we were putting ourselves at risk a bit. Time will tell if he’s right.
Another concern among some people is that if Ireland does not track all cases, with PCR testing limited in the future, how will we know if there are any variants of concern here? The HSE said it would work with the Health Protection Monitoring Centre, the Chief Medical Officer and the Department of Health to continue to monitor the disease.
“The SARS-CoV-2 variant profile in Ireland based on whole genome sequencing carried out by the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) and its partners, together with PCR assay testing, continues to be monitored by the HPSC “, did he declare.
The National Public Health Emergency Team will no longer exist. Live press briefings are over. People return to their desks to resume their usual tasks.
We have reached a decisive moment.
It has been almost two years to the day, February 29, 2020, since I received a late evening phone call to tell me that the first official case of Covid-19 had been detected here. It was reported on RTÉ Nine News.
An affair was expected, but it also sparked a series of events here that people didn’t expect. The country has entered unprecedented lockdowns.
There have been five waves of viruses, with a number of variants, some more dangerous than others. It shook people to their hearts, shook society, business and social life in a way that still bears the scars.
There have been over 6,460 Covid-19 deaths and over 1.2 million PCR-confirmed cases here. The impact and scale of Long Covid is still not fully understood and will be a problem for years to come.
The HSE said there were no immediate plans to end the vaccination programme. He is studying a future model so that it can meet the needs of the population in the future.
What this pattern might be is unclear. It could be an annual vaccination much like the flu vaccination campaign, but what vaccines would be used? Maybe the newer ones are better at defeating all the new variants.
For now, the HSE continues to offer a range of clinics, including booster doses for adults, many of whom are eligible after three months post-Covid. People can still enjoy their first and second dose.
Vaccination clinics for children continue. So far, more than 190,000 children between the ages of 5 and 11 have been vaccinated. The HSE says it will soon implement the advice of the National Immunization Advisory Committee by making boosters available for children aged 12-15.
Additional doses (a fourth dose) are offered to certain people aged 16 or over – those who are immunocompromised and people with certain conditions or diseases – cancer, kidney disease, HIV, transplant recipients, people with genetic diseases and a range of other conditions which are listed on the HSE website.
For the extra dose, hospitals should contact people directly. They should get a text message for their fourth shot.
I have received communications from people who are not in these categories eligible for an extra dose but who would like to receive it, especially older people, since immunity wanes over time with vaccines. No decision has been made on this issue at this stage.
The National Immunization Advisory Committee (NIAC) is reviewing what the overall long-term immunization policy should be and will advise the Chief Medical Officer on this.
It all depends on whether or not we see new variants of concern. The WHO position on the submutation of the Omicron variant, known as BA.2, is that it is gaining traction in countries including Ireland, and so far the sentiment is that it does not matter.
The World Health Organization seems to hope that while the mutation is a bit different as a virus, it’s not a real concern.
Some people worry about how they should manage their own risk now, if the exact level of that risk is no longer clear.
The Ministry of Health will continue to advise people on the changing profile of the disease. The HSE is also due to issue updated guidance for people on Monday, when the Cabinet-approved changes come into effect.
Covid-19 has not disappeared. It is likely to continue to rumble like distant thunder, always with the threat of a return. But for now, society is encouraged to move on, while taking personal responsibility for safety and self-isolation, if people show symptoms.
I want to thank everyone who has engaged with me in any way during the pandemic with questions, concerns and support. He often offered a reservoir of inspiration and angles to pursue and was deeply appreciated.
I would also like to thank all my colleagues at RTÉ and the friendship of media colleagues, as we have traveled together trying to explain everything and find answers.
This particular journey with Covid-19 is over.
My 47 Covid-19 notebooks are going to be kept safe and will always be a stark reminder of the sometimes dark days here.
We will never forget.
And we all fervently hope that Ireland enters a new chapter.