People have been urged to limit their social interactions between now and Christmas, and to choose between activities to limit the spread of the coronavirus, particular if they plan to meet people with underlying conditions over the Christmas period.

The Chief Medical Officer also said that health experts are concerned about travel over the Christmas period leading to a rise in cases of Covid-19 in Ireland.

Dr Tony Holohan made the plea as the Department of Health confirmed 264 new cases of Covid-19. It brings the total number of cases to 76,449.

There has been two further Covid-19-related deaths, bringing the overall death toll to 2,126.

Of the cases notified today, 128 are men and 134 are women, 65% are under 45 years of age and the median age is 36 years old.

The breakdown of today's cases is: 79 in Dublin, 24 in Donegal, 19 in Kerry, 18 in Limerick, 14 in Kildare, 14 in Wexford and the remaining 96 cases are spread across 16 other counties.

As of 2pm today, 215 people are being treated in hospital for Covid-19. 33 of these are being treated in intensive care units - an increase of two from yesterday.

In Northern Ireland, a further five coronavirus deaths have been recorded, taking the official Department of Health toll to 1,129.

There are also 419 new cases. It takes the cumulative total of cases to 58,635.

There are 429 confirmed Covid-19 patients in hospitals in the North, with 31 in ICU, 24 of whom are on ventilators.

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The Chief Executive of the Health Products Regulatory Authority has said many factors have come together to increase the pace of the development of the Covid-19 vaccines.

Addressing the National Public Health Emergency Team briefing this evening, Dr Lorraine Nolan said these include a combination of unprecedented and targeted public and private sector funding, recent developments in vaccine technology and a consolidated product development and manufacturing cycle.

She said rather than the regulatory oversight happening at the end of this process, this has happened in parallel.

She said all of these factors are facilitating the timely and ongoing development of safe and effective vaccines in record time.

She said the European Medicines Agency is aiming to conclude its assessment of safety, efficacy and quality of the Pfizer vaccine on 29 December.

This will then be provided to the European Commission who will grant an EU-wide authorisation.

In relation to the Moderna vaccine, a recommendation by the EMA is expected by 12 January.

Dr Nolan said it was important that the EMA conducts a thorough scientific evaluation of these vaccines.

She said while we have accelerated the regulatory process, it is important to stress that there will be no compromise in the detailed and thorough nature of the scientific scrutiny. She said there will be no lowering of the bar on this.

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The Chief Medical Officer said despite the drop in the number of Covid-19 cases here since yesterday there is a still a change in the pattern of the virus and that we are in an "increasing situation".

Dr Holohan said the five-day average of the virus is up slightly to 312 per 100,000.

He said that while the daily numbers have dropped, the basic message was still to limit social interactions between now and Christmas and to choose between the activities that are now possible to limit the spread of the virus.

"It's really important that individuals minimise the amount of interactions with other people and really select between all the things that can be done and chose those that, as it were, are essential, in particular if they plan over the Christmas in meeting up with people that are in the categories of underlying medical risk," said Dr Holohan.

Dr Holohan said health experts are concerned about travel over the Christmas period leading to a rise in cases in Ireland.

He said infection rates across Europe, and other countries that we have a close travel relationship with, is "very, very high" and that is why the advice is to ask people to avoid all non-essential travel in and out of the country.

He said there is no level of immunity built up in the population that would prevent us facing the same waves of infection that other countries in Europe are experiencing right now.

NPHET was notified today of a new strain of the virus identified in the UK.

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer said it is too early to say if the variant has been seen in this country as there is very little information about it.

But Dr Ronan Glynn said NPHET is interested in learning more about this development.  

Earlier today, the Taoiseach said the rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will begin in the week after its expected approval by the European Medicines Agency.

The EMA is expected to give its decision on 29 December and Micheál Martin said once that happens he hopes that in the following week that the rollout will begin, starting with nursing home residents and healthcare staff.

However, he warned that "'we cannot let down our guard down" on Covid-19 because a vaccine is on the horizon, and that further restrictions may be introduced in January.