The Government has said that parents should aim to reduce socialisation indoors of children aged 12 and under for the next two weeks, as part of efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19 in the community.

In a statement this evening, it said that parents are asked to "prioritise their children's activities" whilst "minimising indoor community gatherings and indoor mixed household gatherings".

It said they should reduce the risk of exposure to the virus by "opting for outdoor activities instead of indoor, and reducing the number of children involved in any particular activity".

The Government also said that "on a temporary basis" the wearing of face coverings will be recommended for children aged 9 years and over on public transport, in retail and other indoor public settings, and for children in third class and above in primary school.

It said additional guidance will be issued to schools from the Department of Education on this.

It said the current Covid-19 situation in Ireland remains "uncertain and of concern", with the new Omicron variant compounding the situation, and incidence of the Delta variant remaining relatively stable at high levels in all age groups.

"While there is some evidence of a move in the right direction in terms of people reducing their close contacts and cancelling future plans for social interaction, it is not yet at the level required in order to result in a significant reduction in the rate of transmission," it said.

The moves come following discussions at Cabinet today.

The Chief Medical Officer has warned that there has been a sharp increase in Covid-19 infections among children between the ages of five and 11.

This evening, Dr Tony Holohan said a number of events and activities should be avoided for the next two weeks at least.

"Indoor birthday parties and play dates - these should take place outdoors and should be kept small, sleepovers, indoor community gatherings involving children including communions, confirmations, nativity and other seasonal events," Dr Holohan said.

"I am hopeful that if we all make a concerted effort to follow these measures for at least the next two weeks, we can make a real difference to incidence of disease in this cohort and in the wider public," he added.

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Meanwhile, ministers were said to be keen to avoid anything that could be viewed as a "circuit breaker" for children.

Sources had indicated that this was an area for public health experts, and there would be no ban on children going to the panto or birthday parties.

Among other measures agreed were that people arriving at Irish ports and airports will need a negative Covid-19 test from Friday.

Ministers heard today that there was a substantial rise in the disease among children.

The Taoiseach told the Dáil that if socialisation among children is reduced it could bring down the number of cases in the 5-11 year-old age group, which he said were "going through the roof".

Micheál Martin said the target in schools now was to get to the Christmas break, recalibrate and review how "we deal with the next semester".

Mr Martin said that face masks for children in third class and above "has been advised and it will be required - we're not going to regulate in law".

The General Secretary of the INTO has warned that if contact tracing doesn't return to schools, "the next term will be completely up in the air."

John Boyle told RTÉ's Drivetime that "time is of the essence" and he called for a plan to be put in place before schools close for Christmas, about how to support schools properly during next term and beyond.

He said in the first four weeks of November, 20,000 primary school children aged 5-12 years tested positive for Covid and that number keeps multiplying by one and a half every fortnight.

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach also told the Dáil that it could cost "up to €80m" to put filtration systems "in every classroom".

Separately, the requirement for negative Covid tests for arrivals here from Friday is set to be reviewed in a fortnight to take account of any new information on Omicron.

Meanwhile, analysis from NPHET shows that case numbers are "particularly high" in 9, 10 and 11-year-olds, according to the Minister for Health.

Stephen Donnelly said this was the reason for the recommendation for children to wear masks in primary schools from third class up.

Earlier today, the Ombudsman for Children said that any new Covid-19 measures around children socialising must be appropriate and proportionate, as the last 18 months have already been extremely stressful for them.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Dr Niall Muldoon said that while it is developmentally important for children to have social interaction outside of school, this needs to be balanced with the need to keep schools open.

He urged the Government to ensure that the impact of any restrictions is assessed quickly so that they can be eased if needs be.

Dr Muldoon said it is important that children will not be penalised if their parents do not support measures around mask wearing, and added that there is an inbuilt unfairness in asking children to restrict their social interactions while adults can continue to enjoy the hospitality sector.

"That's why I'm asking the Government to make sure that they analyse this within two weeks and take a look and see have we reduced sufficiently, have we moved in the direction they wanted to move and can we change the recommendations at that point," Dr Muldoon said.

"We cannot have a blanket situation in which children are bearing more of the other responsibility than the adults."

Dr Muldoon pointed out that further restrictions can be very dangerous for children living in homes that are not safe, although he acknowledged that Tusla and gardaí are working hard to ensure the proper supports are in place.

He said children are facing a second Christmas living with Covid-19 and children "have it in their psyche" that the world is living with a deadly virus.

This is why it is important to promote as positive a Christmas as possible, he said.

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