Six additional deaths and 582 new cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed today in Ireland by the Department of Health.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic began, 78,254 people have tested positive for the virus and 2,149 people have died in Covid-related deaths.
Dublin had the most cases reported today with 193. 59 cases were confirmed in Wexford followed by 47 cases in Louth. 42 cases were recorded in Meath and 34 in Cork.
The remaining 207 cases are spread across all other remaining counties.
310 cases confirmed today are men and 265 are women. The median age of Covid-19 cases confirmed today is 38-years-old and 60% of Covid-19 cases are under 45 years of age.
Commenting on today's latest case data, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Tony Holohan from the Department of Health said the virus situation is deteriorating.
“Over the past week, we have expressed significant concern that the level of infection was deteriorating day on day. The data today adds further evidence that the situation is getting worse more rapidly than we expected.
“The country simply cannot cope with this level of infection as we head into Christmas week. With vaccines offering hope in the coming months for our most vulnerable groups, we want to keep them alive and well so that they can receive it," said Dr Holohan.
The CMO urged the public to protect the vulnerable and observe public health guidelines in the weeks ahead.
“Each one of us must do all we can to protect public health - cut your contacts, see only those you need to see. Choose to socialise safely, outdoors if possible. If you see a crowd, avoid it.
By choosing to act safely right now, together we can limit the impact this disease will have in the weeks and months to come - and in doing so, we can protect the vulnerable and prevent unnecessary deaths,” he said.
198 people are in hospital receiving treatment for Covid-19 and 34 of them are in intensive care.
13 additional hospitalisations in the past 24 hours. Two patients were discharged from intensive care.
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said the Government is “very minded” to introduce significant restrictions on pubs and restaurants before the New Year, in line with Nphet recommendations.
Mr Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, speaking after a meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council, rebuffed calls from Labour Leader Alan Kelly to call an emergency Cabinet meeting, saying the Government will decide on its course of action at its meeting on Tuesday.
But the Taoiseach made clear that while non-essential retail and “personal services”, such as barbers and hairdressers, as well as gyms, will remain open, closures to hospitality settings are very likely in a bid to curtail the spread of Covid-19.
He said they are "very minded" to accept the advice from Nphet to bring the restrictions into effect from December 28.
Government is "very minded" to accept Nphet advice to restrict hospitality before New Year, says @MichealMartinTD— Daniel McConnell (@McConnellDaniel) December 18, 2020
Speaking after a number of engagements with Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan, Mr Martin said the rising number of Covid-19 cases over the last week means there is a need to introduce restrictions ahead of New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Mr Varadkar said Government stands ready to support the hospitality sector in the eventuality of further closures.
The Taoiseach also said that Nphet’s recommendations that household visits be reduced to one are likely to be adopted and that inter-county travel will again be curtailed.
Responding to questions from the Irish Examiner, Mr Martin said the Cabinet will decide the length of the additional restrictions at its meeting on Tuesday.
Doubts have also been cast over foreign summer holidays and the return of spectators to sporting events next year after the Taoiseach warned that it could be another seven months before Covid vaccines are widely available.
Mr Martin has warned that it is likely to be next August before the general population is offered vaccination against Covid-19.
His "optimistic view" is that it will be the Autumn before the GAA Championship, football, rugby or other sporting events could be held with crowds in attendance.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last week provided a rough estimate of the rollout of vaccines at a meeting of leaders in Brussels.
Mr Martin said: "January, February you are looking at lower volumes of vaccines around Europe, with the priority then being nursing home residents and healthcare workers.
"Picking up in March and April and then May, June, July being very important months where you have very high volumes coming through. Then into the August period, you are into open access to the vaccine," he said.
Mr Martin said the priority in the Spring will be to protect those who are most vulnerable and are most at risk of dying if they contract Covid-19 Asked about the return to spectators at sports games, Mr Martin said: "The optimistic side of me would like to see it in the Autumn, but again, I think it's too early to make that call.
"I think when we see crowds back at sporting occasions, we will know we have beaten the virus," he told Newstalk Breakfast.
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald warned that the hope of a vaccine cannot be a reason for people to "let their guard down".
"There are six months left in this anyhow. I think people will agree and then we can only hope that we get through Christmas into the New Year into the spring and then back into the summer and that in the summertime that light at the end of the tunnel is, is closer and closer and that we can kind of actually look to a new normal.
Ms McDonald said that she will take "any vaccine" but said those who have honest questions around it must not be dismissed.
She said the easing of the restrictions for Christmas is "absolutely essential" as "of all Christmases people need the comfort of their families".
"But I also know that unless we are disciplined in ourselves, we're going to see huge spikes in January and February on our system, the health system could easily become overwhelmed," she said.
Mr Martin has confirmed that "Level 3 plus" restrictions will be implemented earlier than had been expected due to rising Covid cases.
Restaurants and gastropubs are now expected to close before New Year's Eve and visits will be limited to one household under escalated Covid restrictions. "
I am worried about the growing numbers. We have to be worried about them. Because one thing we know about this virus is that when it gets to a certain level, it increases exponentially after that," the Taoiseach said.
Confirming that stricter measures will be introduced "before New Year's Eve", Mr Martin said: "We want to give people a meaningful Christmas, that will happen and I think from mental wellbeing purpose and just families meeting that's important, but people need to mind themselves, people need to really do the essentials of them in terms of wearing masks and so on."