There is hope now for an end to the Covid-19 pandemic but many months to go before normality returns.
Ireland, despite a difficult and tragic start, is now in a better position facing into Christmas compared to most European nations although health experts are watching a slow rise in our cases with concern.
The 14-day incidence rate for infections in Ireland is currently 80.4 per 100,000 which is the second lowest in the EU. Only remote Iceland is doing better with a rate of 49.3 cases.
An unusually emotional speech from German chancellor Angela Merkel last week focused the world’s attention on her country's deteriorating situation. The country is facing another round of restrictions to lower their rate from 341.1 cases per 100,000.
Schools and non-essential shops closed this week and visitor numbers in homes are restricted from now until January 10, with a small Christmas window.
Similarly, Sweden, feted earlier in the year for controlling the virus without a stringent lockdown, now has a 14-day incidence rate of 738.8. Schools were told this week to switch to distance learning and a ban on gatherings of more than eight people is extended to Christmas. Closure of shopping centres and gyms is under consideration.
Our neighbours in the UK now face a new strain of the virus in addition to rising case numbers in cities such as London and Manchester. However, scientists say it is unlikely this new strain will make a difference to vaccine plans; at least three significant strains were previously identified. It is too early to say if this strain is in Ireland.
Northern Ireland is seeing a worrying growth in cases, reaching 419 daily cases even though their vaccine programme has already started. There has been much criticism of cross-border engagement on contact tracing, with GPs on both sides of the border warning it is near impossible to track contacts effectively.
France had hoped to reach a low of 5,000 daily cases this month, but they remain stubbornly high at around 13,000. As a result, a night-time curfew was introduced this week, and re-opening generally delayed. This will lift on Christmas Eve only but not New Year's Eve.
The low number of cases here is good news for the hospital system which seems at this point to be managing the virus.
ICU numbers have stabilised at less than 40 over recent weeks. On Wednesday 199 patients were in hospital with Covid-19, a steady decrease since level 5 restrictions were introduced and far from the April peak of 844.
In contrast, Italy, one of the worst-affected European nations during the first wave, saw almost as many patients in hospital with Covid-19 in late November as in April.
The number of people dying with Covid-19 in Ireland is also lower than in the first wave, mainly due to increased protection for older and vulnerable patients.
But 2,134 people have lost their lives, and this number is sadly likely to increase.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention (ECDC) said Ireland is among 13 EU countries where deaths are declining or stabilising but they warned of sustained increases in ten other countries.
Ireland’s vaccine plans are closely intertwined with Europe. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said this week all 27 countries should begin vaccinating on the same day.
The European Medicines Agency has moved up its approval date for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to December 21. The Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) in Ireland works with Europe on safety checks.
Under Government strategy, coordinated by the High-Level Task Force on Covid-19 Vaccination, the vaccine will first go to older people in long-term care facilities and healthcare workers. This is in line with other EU countries.
The EU has six agreements for getting different vaccines and, so far, Ireland has signed up for five of these. Scientists say it is not yet known if certain vaccines are more suitable than others for different age groups, or if they are interchangeable.
It is expected that, by early next year, there will be a number of different vaccines on offer here with a total of 14.4m doses to come. Five of the six require two doses to be effective.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine must be stored at between -70°C to -80°C but can be transported at normal fridge temperature for up to 120 hours. A demonstration on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live showed how dry ice will be used to assist with temperature control.
On Wednesday the chair of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, Karina Butler, said a redress scheme is being developed for anyone suffering adverse reactions. But she said allergic reactions are extremely rare, although this is being studied in the UK following two cases there.
Short-term reactions such as flu-like symptoms are more likely, and she said regulatory bodies in the US, UK, and Canada did not raise any safety concerns.
Surveys show up to 80% of people in Ireland will probably or definitely take the vaccine. This would be enough to ensure what is called herd immunity once the full rollout takes place.
But Micheál Martin has warned it could be summer before normal life resumes.
The HSE is already working with social media platforms to make sure accurate information is available online, and more details are on the HSE and Department of Health websites.
Chief executive of the HPRA, Lorraine Nolan, advised pregnant women and women undergoing fertility treatment or expecting to become pregnant to wait before getting the vaccine for now. Advice from the EMA is expected on this in the new year for all Europeans.
Some countries, such as Germany, are more advanced than Ireland in their preparations. The German health minister said this week they want to start vaccinating in December. They already have 440 vaccination centres and about 10,000 medical staff activated and ready to go.
The UK has already started vaccinating under an emergency authorisation which is also available to other EU countries. Ireland can now benefit from watching this rollout in one part of the island.
Despite this, senior British health experts called this week on government to delay reopening the UK until later in the new year.
Irish healthcare workers are also looking with some trepidation at Christmas, worried that free travel across country boundaries could boost the increase in cases already detected.
The Health Protection Surveillance Centre has said no Covid-19 outbreaks were linked to cafes, restaurants, or pubs in the last two weeks.
This means the virus frontline could sit in our living rooms so authorities are calling on people not to party, to stay outdoors as much as possible, and to get vaccinated.