A Christmas season without playdates, nativity plays or pantomimes.

Followed by a new regime of mask wearing and antigen testing in schools.

Parents of small children are entering a new frontier in the fight against Covid.

While incidence of the disease has risen across all age groups, it is highest in those aged 5-12 years.

And that is where the Government's public health advisers have set their sights.

The National Public Health Emergency Team has recommended no indoor gatherings for the next few weeks. That covers playdates, pantos, birthday parties and anything else.

It also wants primary school children, over the age of nine, to wear masks indoors and on public transport. In practice that will mean masks at school for hours at a time.


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Tomorrow, the Cabinet will gather to evaluate the advice and consider whether to give its backing. But all the indications are that the Government will sign off on the recommendations.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly acknowledged as much today when he said he supported the measures as "broadly sensible" pointing to data that the majority of transmission among this age group is happening outside the school environment in an indoor setting.

However, most of the recommendations will remain at the level of advice, meaning it will not be underpinned by a legal framework.

Ministers do not want to be in the domain of regulating birthday parties and ordering inspections of theatres to root out children in attendance.

But the advice does throw up some wacky anomalies in a twisted pandemic world. RTÉ's Claire Byrne grilled the Minister on whether visiting Santa was ok- the answer is yes if the group is relatively small. However, pantomime is out.

Since the advice leaked last Thursday, the pantomime sector has been haemorrhaging bookings. Of course, performances may be staged but the recommendation is that no children are in the audience.

The opposition has railed at the confusion wrought by the latest proposals. Sinn Féin health spokesperson David Cullinane said parents wanted schools to be safe but he said children were sent in with no mitigation measures, filtration devices or contact tracing.

"Parents, teachers, school managers and the opposition have been shouting about this for months, and not only did the government ignore what was happening; they kept repeating the mantra that 'schools are safe’.

"Overnight, schools have gone from being so safe that contract tracing is not needed, to needing children to wear masks to keep safe."

Others including Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte and Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin have said exceptions on mask wearing need to be made for children with additional needs.

We are told that all of these measures are temporary. The mask-wearing advice runs until February.

By then, vaccines will likely be rolling out to primary school aged children following the European Medicines Agency’s approval of the Pfizer jab for the 5-11 age group. Those lower-dose vaccines are due to arrive from December 20.

On top of this, parents are already grappling with the consequences of children having the usual seasonal cold. This year, a runny nose or cough means staying out of childcare with the parent forced to work from home juggling the childminding.

And with the arrival of Omicron, the goalposts may have shifted yet again and living with Covid may be set to take a few more turns yet.