Hopes of the country escaping from level 5 restrictions have been raised, as key Covid-19 virus indicators appear to be levelling off.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said level 3 restrictions introduced in early October are now "starting to have an effect" and he is "increasingly optimistic" that a vaccine will be available in Ireland from early next year.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid said the positivity rate of testing had fallen for eight days in a row as of yesterday morning, while the average number of close contacts was now at three, which is down from 4.5.
"What we are seeing now is the majority of close contacts are generally household family contacts", Mr Reid said, adding that this indicates people are listening to the advice not to visit other homes.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly described the fall in close-contact numbers and positivity rates as a "beacon of hope" which he said "indicates that the sacrifices that many people have made are making a difference".
The Government had built in a review of Level 5 restrictions after four weeks, meaning measures could be eased if the virus is brought under control.
However, it is understood that there are now two schools of thought within the Government on lifting restrictions. Some believe that regardless of the figures, level 5 should be kept in place to ensure the number of infections stays low around Christmas.
"If we were to lift them early, that would be the middle of November and that could give the virus time to regenerate and you could be shutting things down again in the week before Christmas. That is not where we want to be at," a senior source said.
Mr Donnelly said: "Covid case numbers are still high, and we must not get complacent now. It is too early to see a reflection of the move to Level 5.
"We all have to stick to the public-health guidance over the next five weeks to get the case numbers low again. This will protect lives and livelihoods, and it will also allow our health service to continue caring for all patients."
While 1,025 new cases were recorded yesterday, there were no further deaths.
A total of 859 cases were reported on Saturday and 777 on Friday.
As of yesterday afternoon, 315 patients with Covid-19 were hospitalised, 38 in ICU. There were 16 additional hospitalisations in the previous 24 hours.
Meanwhile, President Michael D Higgins has signed measures into law [url=https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-40070816.html]that will allow gardaí to issue graduated fines to those who do not comply with Covid-19 rules, including travel restrictions and the wearing of facemasks.
The gardaí will also have the power to break up house parties and issue fines to those who refuse to comply with these rules.
The Tánaiste also warned retailers thatgardaí will clamp down on those selling toys and other non-essential products.
"Where a mixed retailer is selling non-essential products we can bring enforcement action against them," he said.
Mr Varadkar said he is confident that the country can move back to "Level 3 and a bit" before Christmas but he warned that the public cannot become complacent.
Mr Varadkar said: "It is early days yet, but it does seem that the Level 3 restrictions that the Government put in place around the fifth or sixth of October are starting to have an effect.
"When you tell people things are getting better, there's always a risk that that can send out the wrong message that we can relax, and we can't, because this is a virus that is spreading like wildfire across Europe and we want to be the first country in Europe to turn the tide," Mr Varadkar said.
He said the Government is “increasingly optimistic that we will see a vaccine approved in the next couple of months".
He told RTÉ'sprogramme he was confident that in "the first half of, if not the first quarter of next year, it will be possible to start vaccinating those most at risk, healthcare workers, and people with chronic illnesses".