The lifting of some Covid-related travel restrictions this week has cleared a path for family doctors to travel from South Africa to Ireland to provide out-of-hours cover over the Christmas period.

A long-standing arrangement has seen GPs from South Africa travel to Kerry and Cork in particular to provide additional emergency and out-of-hours cover at evenings and weekends.

However, the emergence of the Omicron variant saw the introduction of restrictions for those travelling to Ireland from South Africa.

This resulted in doctors, who had been scheduled to work in Kerry and Cork during the Christmas period, being prevented from travelling to work in Ireland.

Talks were held between the Department of Health and the Department of Justice in an effort to avoid an out-of-hours emergency care crisis in the south west.

This week, the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee signed an order reversing visa requirements brought in last month for some southern African nationalities in support of Covid-19 public health measures.

With effect from 22 December, nationals of Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho and South Africa no longer require entry visas and nationals of Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa no longer require transit visas.

All those travelling to Ireland must continue to comply fully with measures required by law including proof of vaccination, recovery from Covid-19 or a negative PCR test to Immigration Control at their port of entry to the State.

This order will enable family doctors to travel to Ireland from South Africa.

Dr Gary Stack, Medical Director of SouthDoc, told RTÉ News he was "very relieved" but expressed some concern over the delay in lifting the restrictions.

"They were over a month delayed coming in; there are four doctors concerned [in the Cork/Kerry region] and that is over four months' work lost - unnecessarily I believe," he said.

"This decision was taken unnecessarily without thinking through the effects it would have on the service."

Once the four doctors scheduled to work in the Cork/Kerry region arrive in Ireland from South Africa, they will self-isolate for a 14-day period and provide video consultations to patients.

After their period of isolation has elapsed, they will begin to work with patients in the community.