Ireland is now in a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, public health experts have said, with people being urged to stay at home and stop socialising.

The Department of Health today confirmed 727 new cases of Covid-19, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 80,267.

There has been no further deaths reported, meaning the death toll remains at 2,158.

As of 2pm today, 241 people were in hospital with Covid-19. The number of people in ICU remains unchanged at 29.

Speaking at a National Public Health Emergency Team briefing this evening, Professor Philip Nolan said: "We are clearly now in a third wave of this pandemic, with very rapidly rising case numbers."

The Chair of the NPHET Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group said the five-day moving average is 616 cases a day.

Prof Philip Nolan said the increased case numbers are almost certainly linked to socialisation.

He said that the positivity rate is rising rapidly, showing widespread transmission. It currently stands at 5.2%.

He warned that if this were to continue, Ireland would have over 900 cases by 30 December and 1,300 by 6 January.

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The Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said "this virus is spreading very, very quickly now".

Dr Holohan said it is really important that people stay at home and stop socialising.

He said it is not the time to go to restaurants. He said even though people have planned and thought ahead, it is now time to revise and rethink those plans.

Dr Holohan said the advice is still against non-essential travel and those who have arrived here in the past 14 days, or who arrive here from the UK, should self-isolate and get tested, ideally at Day 5.

Dr Lorraine Nolan, Chief Executive, Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA), told today's NPHET briefing that the EU Commission's decision to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine will be legally binding across all member states and she thanked those involved for reaching this point.

She said that from a regulatory perspective the work does not stop and the HPRA will continue to collect data on the safety and effectiveness of this vaccine and others that might be approved.

Dr Nolan said that people will be encouraged to report any side effects so that the safety profile of the vaccine can be maintained.

When explaining why NPHET are concerned about the mutated virus discovered in the UK, Dr Cillian de Gascun said: "All viruses evolve over time, there's nothing surprising about that, but generally speaking this virus tends to acquire between one and two mutations per month and this novel variant has 29 mutations."

The Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, Dr de Gascun, said they cannot exclude the possibility that the new variant of the virus is in the country, even though there is no evidence of that to date.

Of the cases notified today, 359 are men and 366 are women. 62% are under 45 years of age and the median age is 36 years old.

The national breakdown of today's cases is: 311 in Dublin, 51 in Kilkenny, 48 in Wexford, 44 in Donegal, 44 in Cork and the remaining 229 cases are spread across 19 other counties. 

In Northern Ireland, a further seven coronavirus deaths have been recorded and an additional 555 cases have been diagnosed.

The total number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the region now stands at 62,497, with a death toll of 1,203.

The latest figures for the North come as Stormont's Education Minister Peter Weir said he will introduce remote learning for secondary schools in Northern Ireland from 25 January.

In the Republic, the three coalition party leaders are meeting this evening to discuss the imposition of tighter restrictions after Christmas.

Sources have indicated that the planned introduction of tougher measures will be brought forward to a date between 26 December and 30 December.

An announcement will be made after tomorrow's Cabinet meeting.

The current ban on travel from Britain to Ireland is "unlikely" to be lifted before Christmas, the Minister for Transport said earlier today.

Read more: Five things we learned from the Covid-19 briefing