CEO of the Health Service Executive Paul Reid has urged people to "keep a heightened level of guard" over the coming weeks, especially if they plan to meet friends. 

Speaking at the weekly HSE Covid-19 update, Mr Reid said there is a "natural urge to hug people and wish them a Merry Christmas" after spending time at a restaurant or a gastropub, but he warned this will pose "an extreme risk".

He said he foresees three phases of risk, namely this weekend as restaurants and gastropubs reopen, the second being next week until 18 December when people can visit other households, and from the week of Christmas until the New Year being the third phase. 

Mr Reid said the HSE will be "watching very carefully" during the third phase "which poses the highest risk for the HSE and health services" due to an anticipated level of inter-generational mixing. 

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Mr Reid said "further lockdowns" may not be needed in the New Year "if people follow all of the precautions" if mixing with others over the coming weeks. 

"Don't just wish people a safe Christmas, practice what will make it a safe Christmas," he urged.

The CEO said the high-level vaccine task force is "on track" to deliver a strategy to the Taoiseach and to Government by 11 December.

"It is realistic that Ireland will commence its vaccination programme in the early days of January 2021," he added.

Mr Reid said Ireland has capacity to acquire 16 million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, adding that "although there will be no shortage of the vaccine", they will arrive at different stages, which "will require sequencing or a prioritisation process which is currently being finalised".

He reiterated that the vaccine will "not be our first line of defence".

He said there is a "high risk from an HSE perspective that there is a possibility that the public will lose principals that have served us so well in 2020".

There are 233 people being treated for Covid-19 in hospitals, the briefing heard.

There are 31 people in ICU, with a capacity of 46, "which is holding strong, and we are still coping".

He said of the cases notified between 17 and 30 November, 274 have been hospitalised, with nine people admitted to ICU.

The HSE's Anne O'Connor said over a million flu vaccines have been given out since September and December - a 48% increase in 2019.

Ms O'Connor said 53,000 people are availing of home supports and not attending hospital while a total of 168 community beds are currently open.

Admissions to hospitals of over-75s have gone up by 5% since last week. Ms O'Connor said we are not seeing "big surges" or a prevalence of flu and trolley counts remains low.

Virtual consultations continue to be 23% of outpatient activity, she added.

A total of 51 residents are in self isolation in Citywest currently; 1,093 nursing homes are receiving supports like PPE and there are 102 outbreaks in long-term care facilities at the moment, Ms O'Connor outlined.

Mr Reid explained that there are nine outbreaks in hospitals which are causing 733 staff to be off work.

On testing and tracing, he said the end-to-end time for non-detected cases is 1.4 days and for detected cases, two days.

It is likely that Ireland "will reach a key milestone" of having completed two million tests later this week, Mr Reid added.

He said the number of close contacts is averaging at 3.8 people.

Chief Clinical Officer at the HSE Dr Colm Henry said they are seeing one fifth of the positive cases of Covid-19 than they were at the end of October.

He said the R value is between 0.8 and 1.

Meanwhile, National Lead for Testing and Tracing Niamh O'Beirne said they are still looking at the benefits at saliva testing and that testing and tracing will continue throughout Christmas.

Serial testing will continue also in residential facilities, she explained.