The Taoiseach has said the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and its members will always be facilitated by the Government in terms of articulating public health advice.

Speaking to journalists, Micheál Martin said public health advice has been central to the Government's response to the pandemic and "the articulation of that advice will always be facilitated".

He said "at no stage, will there ever be an attempt made to compromise the independence of that advice".

Earlier this week, the Government said the plan is to coordinate key messages in Covid across all parts of Government.

Mr Martin said that members of NPHET are to be facilitated in terms of their appearance on media outlets, adding that there is a need to coordinate it and evaluate it as sometimes there has been a plethora of voices which may not have been as helpful as it could have been.

It comes as the Department of Health was notified of 2,950 further Covid-19 cases.

There are 536 patients with the virus in hospital, an increase of 33 from yesterday, with 110 in intensive care.

In a statement, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said: "During these winter months it is vital that if any of us experience symptoms of Covid-19, we isolate immediately and arrange a PCR test.

"We all know the actions to prevent the spread of Covid-19 - good hand hygiene, wearing a face covering, meeting others outdoors where possible and, when indoors, opening windows and ensuring good ventilation, keeping our distance and, of course, coming forward for vaccination and booster dose when eligible.

"The ongoing efforts by all of us to work with the public health advice during this pandemic continues to be fundamental to our work to drive down the incidence of Covid-19 in our communities."

In Northern Ireland, there have been 1,635 further cases of Covid-19. There are 301 Covid patients in hospital, 34 of whom are in intensive care.

In relation to the Omicron variant, the Taoiseach said we need to see the results of the work currently taking place internationally on the variant to determine how infectious it is and the level of protection provided by vaccines against it.

He said we need to wait and be patient to get a full understanding of Omicron and those findings will determine the direction of travel.

The Taoiseach said the Government is doing everything it can to ramp up the uptake and the provision of the booster vaccine programme in the coming weeks, and he urged people to get vaccinated.

He said the restrictions announced last week will be in place until 9 January and he does not expect any more restrictions.

Free antigen testing for colleges

A €9 million fund to provide free antigen tests for college students has been announced by Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris.

The fund will be accessible to all colleges and will be accompanied by an awareness campaign.

Minister Harris said 400,000 students had returned to college campuses because public health advice was followed.

However, he said advice from the Expert Advisory Group on Rapid Testing suggested a transmission risk from multi-generational mixing.

As a consequence, the Minister has created the fund, which colleges can draw down to provide free antigen tests on their premises.

The awareness campaign will inform on antigen tests and their appropriate use.

Minister Harris described the initiative as an additional measure of protection for students, the third level sector and the community at large.

The Irish Universities Association welcomed the announcement, saying it builds on the Uni-Cov project already in place in a number of universities.

"Universities will now work to source supplies of testing kits as soon as possible," a statement for the association read.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has revised a controversial instruction issued to schools, which directed that older children should be refused entry to primary schools if they decline to wear a mask without medical reason.

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Additional reporting Paul Cunningham