A clinical director at a hospital in the midlands has said that a Government decision to change the isolation rules for asymptomatic Covid close contacts would "make a huge difference" to staffing issues.

Westmeath had the highest incidence rate of Covid-19 in the week after Christmas. The most recent figures from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre show an incidence of 3056.2 cases per 100,000 people in the county.

Outside the Westmeath HSE testing centre the demand was evident, as cars snaked throughout St Loman's Hospital campus queuing for PCR tests today.

January has always been a difficult month for the Regional Hospital Mullingar, but Omicron has hit hard.

"We're experiencing a particular issue at the moment with staff shortages," said Clinical Director, Professor Murat Kirca.

"In the first week of January, 15% of our staff wasn't in work."

Outpatient appointments have been cancelled this week and last week, and scheduled care has also been reduced.

The hospital has tried not to use a derogation, which allows healthcare staff to come to work if they are a close contact but have no symptoms and have received a booster vaccine.

However, a Government decision to change the isolation rules for asymptomatic close contacts would "make a huge difference".

"I believe there may be changes to come and that would be very, very helpful to bring staff back in, because we need them at the frontline at the moment," said Professor Kirca.

Signs that businesses are struggling with staff shortages can be seen in shop windows around the county.

"Most are managing it hour by hour," said Alan Shaw, President of the Athlone Chamber of Commerce.

"They're sitting by the phone in the evening, waiting to see what the next day brings."

Grovelands Childcare has six facilities in Mullingar, Tullamore and Athlone and, for the first time during the pandemic, has had to close services for families.

"We have four operating as normal, one on reduced hours, and another that's providing care for just ten of the 110 children it would normally take," said Deirdre Frampton-Bushell, Director of Operations.

"Out of the 19 staff that we have off at the moment, only six of them are Covid positive, the rest relate to close contacts."

A change to the close contact rules would make a big difference in providing more childcare places.

"Our main goal to get the centres back open to full capacity, but with public health guidelines," said Ms Frampton-Bushell.

"Parents are relying on us to get to work, to keep the economy going, so you feel a sense of responsibility if you can't offer them that service," she said.