The Government is now expected to introduce more restrictions from next week, given the rise of a new Covid variant, the Finance Minister has indicated.
Paschal Donohoe has said hotel quarantine measures could be signed off on as early as today and further measures are likely to be discussed at a full Cabinet meeting next Tuesday.
Mr Donohoe warned that community transmission of the virus is currently "high" which he said means the starting position for dealing with any new variant is "not what we wish it to be".
"I think, given what has happened with this variant, there certainly will be (more restrictions), as we move into Cabinet next Tuesday, the possibility of needing to take further decisions," he said.
Mr Donohoe, speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne show, said the Government will be making a decision on reintroducing hotel quarantine for those coming from South Africa and other countries where the new variant has been found "imminently".
"Every hour, every day does matter. And that's why a decision on this will happen very quickly."
However, he said any form of hotel quarantine would be "very different in scope and scale" and would be limited to a small number of countries.
"If there is a need to meet today that will quickly be implemented. This is the kind of decision that if it does require a full Cabinet decision can be done incorporeally, and that will happen quickly," Mr Donohoe said.
"I believe, and anticipate that we will need to make changes," he said, adding that any Irish people currently in impacted countries will have to be considered.
Any reintroduction of hotel quarantining will require legislation, but he hopes the Dáil would act very quickly on this.
"We are reminded and confronted to yet again, with a virus that is ever-changing. But what will not change is the ability of our country to get through this challenge and get to a better place," he said.
The Covid adviser for the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) has warned that a new African variant of the virus was a source of concern, particularly if it outruns the Delta variant.
The European Union will propose to halt air travel from southern Africa over growing concern about a new Covid-19 variant, as the UK said it will also temporarily ban flights from the region.
The EU bloc “will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern,” European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said in a tweet.
Scientists are still trying to determine whether the new variant, called B.1.1529, is more transmissible or more lethal than previous ones, but it does have the most mutations of any strain yet identified.
That’s raised concerns inside South Africa and internationally, with authorities fearing a wave of cases that could increase pressure on already strained healthcare systems.
This new variant has also been found in Hong Kong in travellers from South Africa.
Dr Mary Favier, Covid adviser for the ICGP, says if the new variant manages to “outrun” the Delta variant, then “we will have a problem.”
It is still unknown if vaccines will work against the new variant, she said.
Immunologist Professor Christine Loscher says the World Health Organisation (WHO) will likely move the status of the new variant from one 'of interest' to one 'of concern' in the near future.
The new variant is 'of concern' because of the number of mutations in the spike proteins and it is still unclear how this will respond to vaccines.
It was a case of wait and see the impact, she said.
However, she pointed out that vaccine manufacturers have been able to “tweak” vaccines as the virus changed.
“That’s a positive thing to know, that they have the technology to vary the vaccine as variants arrive," she told RTÉ's Morning Ireland.
Prof Loscher also highlighted the benefits of vaccination for children.
Studies had indicated the impact of long-lasting Covid on up to 10% of children, she said.
The impact of the virus was not just clinical, she said, it had an impact on education, on extracurricular activities and on not being able to socialise.
There is a high advantage in children being vaccinated especially if new variants emerge, at which point a high level of community vaccination would help, she added.
Prof Loscher also called for the wearing of masks for children in primary school to be a recommendation and guidance, rather than mandatory.
The decision should be made on a case by case basis for every child and parent, she said.
Dr Favier has also welcomed plans to extend the vaccine programme to children aged five years to 11 years.
However, she pointed out that it would be a parental decision and GPs would be willing to discuss the issue with parents.
The World Health Organisation’s technical working group is to meet on Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.
The WHO said coronavirus infections jumped 11% in Europe in the past week, the only region in the world where Covid-19 cases continues to rise.
The organisation’s Europe director, Dr Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by the spring.
The EU’s emergency brake mechanism has been set up to deal with such emergencies.
Where the epidemiological situation of a third country or region worsens quickly, in particular if a variant of concern or of interest has been detected, member states should adopt an urgent, temporary restriction on all travel into the EU.
This emergency brake should not apply to EU citizens, long-term EU residents and certain categories of essential travellers, who should nevertheless be subject to appropriate testing and quarantine measures, even if fully vaccinated.
Such restrictions should be reviewed at least every two weeks.