Ireland has joined EU states in quickly applying an “emergency brake” on travel to and from seven Southern African countries after the Omicron variant was dubbed a variant of concern.
Legislation will be brought through the Dáil early next week which will allow the re-introduction of mandatory hotel quarantining as part of measures to stop the spread of the new, highly transmissible variant.
Last night, the European Centre for Disease Control said: "The Omicron variant is the most divergent variant that has been detected in significant numbers during the pandemic so far, which raises concerns that it may be associated with increased transmissibility, significant reduction in vaccine effectiveness and increased risk for reinfections."
However, Dr Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Programme, urged people not to panic and instead asked that they continue to adhere to public health guidelines while officials assess the threat posed by the new variant.
“This happens, viruses evolve and we pick up variations," Dr Ryan said. "It is not the end of the world, the sky is not falling in."
Dr Ryan added: "There is this idea that we are just waiting for the next variant, and I don’t want people to spend their lives worrying about that every day.
"Scientists need to worry about that, and we need to characterise those risks, and you need to trust that we will tell you if there is a significant change in risk."
Munster rugby players were among a number of Irish citizens trying to leave South Africa last night after Health Minister Stephen Donnelly advised all those in the seven impacted counties to return home as soon as possible.
Arrangements are being made to fly home the 33-man squad and staff — who remain in lockdown in their hotel — following the decision by the United Rugby Championship to postpone all games which were due to take place in South Africa this weekend and next.
They will then have to enter a strict home quarantine for 10 days while awaiting further PCR tests.
Mr Donnelly said gardaí will have a role to play in ensuring people adhere to the new quarantining rules.Other countries where the new variant is found may also be included on the restrictions list as the situation evolves.
"There's one case in Belgium, one case we're aware of in Israel, and one in one in Hong Kong, and the EU is looking at the travel advisory for those countries as well.
"Obviously this is something that we will keep under constant review," Mr Donnelly said.
Meanwhile, Mr Donnelly announced a major update to the booster vaccination programme.
The advice recommends boosters for pregnant women aged 16 and older, people aged 40 to 49, and those aged 16 to 39 years in descending order by age.
In the case of those aged 16 to 39 who received the one-shot Janssen vaccine, a booster can be offered irrespective of their age after a minimum three-month interval.
People who received the Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccines can avail of an additional dose five months after their second jab.
However, those who have had Covid will have to wait at least six months after their infection was diagnosed to receive a booster.
Booster doses will continue to be prioritised for older age cohorts, immunocompromised, healthcare workers, and people in residential care.
With 4,620 new cases confirmed last night, Mr Donnelly said he "certainly endorses" the most recent advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team that parties, communions, sleepovers, and other indoor group activities for children under the age of 12 should now be avoided.