DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland announced its strictest lockdown measures since early last year on Wednesday as a "tsunami" of infections caused by a new COVID-19 variant pushed hospitalisations to a record high and sparked fears the healthcare system could be overwhelmed.
Ireland's 14-day infection rate has quadrupled in the past 10 days to 819 cases per 100,000, fueled by a new more transmissible COVID-19 variant first identified in Britain and the relaxation of restrictions ahead of Christmas.
Officials reported a record high of 7,836 cases on Wednesday.
"Already exhausted healthcare workers now face a tsunami of infection even greater than the first wave," Prime Minister Micheal Martin told a news conference announcing the new measures.
"In addition we have a more infectious strain of the virus in our midst... which can rapidly lead to growth well beyond previous worst case scenarios."
A six-week lockdown in October and November reduced Ireland's infection rate to the lowest in the European Union. But the reopening of restaurants and retail in December and a lifting of a ban on household visits for Christmas then helped give it the EU's fastest infection growth rate.
In a bid to regain control, the government on Wednesday ordered the closure of most schools and construction sites for at least three weeks, tightening a lockdown that has already closed most hospitality and retail outlets and banned household visits.
Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said bars and restaurants in Ireland should be prepared for the fact that closure until the end of March was now likely as the country waits for the delivery of enough vaccine to control the virus.
"If I was running a business now, I would be thinking that it's a probability that I'll be closed until the end of March," Varadkar said, adding that state support for workers would last at least until then.
The number of patients in Irish hospitals with COVID-19 hit an all-time high of 921 on Wednesday up from a mid-April peak of 881. COVID-19 hospital admissions are rising by around 10% a day, health officials said.
The head of the country's health service Paul Reid earlier this week said the total in hospitals could hit 2,500 this month if infection growth rates are not curbed.
"Hospitals and ICUs (intensive care units) not overwhelmed in the first wave are at serious risk of being so later this month," Varadkar said.
"We are facing into what is going to be a really dark January," he added.
(Reporting by Conor Humphries and Graham Fahy; editing by Barbara Lewis and Philippa Fletcher)
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