Ireland will face Level 5 coronavirus restrictions for at least a month, the Taoiseach has announced.
In an address to the nation Micheal Martin described the state of the pandemic as “extremely serious”.
Rising case numbers will “deteriorate further over the coming days”, he warned as he announced the measures.
This will include a ban on visitors in private homes or gardens unless they are providing care to children or the elderly or vulnerable, or part of a support bubble.
No social or family gatherings in any setting will be permitted, with an exemption for weddings with up to six guests, and funerals with up to 10 mourners.
Mr Martin urged the public to remain at home, apart from travel for work, education or other essential purposes.
Exercise is permitted within 5km of home, while all non-essential retail and gyms will shut their doors at close of business on Thursday.
Meanwhile schools will reopen on January 11, extending the Christmas break by three days.
Level 5 restrictions will remain in place until midnight on January 31, 2021.
The Taoiseach said that with the presence of the new strain and the pace of growth, this was “not a time for nuance in our response”.
He said while the next month will be “very tough for everyone”, there is an end in sight with vaccines.
“For the first time since this awful disease landed on our shores, we truly have an end in sight,” he said.
“Thousands of vaccines are landing here weekly and by the end of January I am confident that many tens of thousands of our most vulnerable citizens and our healthcare workers will have been vaccinated.”
Earlier, HSE chief Paul Reid warned that transmission levels of the virus were at a worrying level, adding that the worst fears from before Christmas had been realised.
The #CovidVaccine is here and we are rolling it out to those most at risk first. Right now, we still need to keep our distance, wash our hands and do everything we can to protect each other from COVID-19. For factual, trusted information â¡ï¸ https://t.co/JOOU1ECAGd#VaccinesWork pic.twitter.com/IG7cLdmcNJ— HSE Ireland (@HSELive) December 30, 2020
The R value, the average number of people someone with coronavirus infects, has been estimated at 1.8.
“There is no doubt that most of our worst concerns that I outlined just before Christmas have been realised,” Mr Reid said.
“There is an unprecedented and toxic combination of potential scenarios (which) have literally been realised and have emerged.
“That’s a combination of a massively high level and rapidly growing daily cases, combined with (test) positivity levels that have not been seen in a long time, demonstrating a very dangerous level of transmission of the virus along with extreme levels of numbers of close contacts that people have had.
“Multiple factors have come together which we did fear would happen.”
Mr Reid made a “serious and urgent” call to the public to take immediate actions, withdraw from plans to meet with family and protect themselves by remaining at home.
When we keep our distance when visiting others, using public transport or doing things outside the home, weâre protecting ourselves & those around us from #COVID19. But when we drop our guard, we could become exposed to the virus. Let's stay safe this Christmas. #SafeChristmas pic.twitter.com/pBz1irczXn— HSE Ireland (@HSELive) December 30, 2020
Meanwhile, the HSE’s lead for testing and tracing revealed a 41% rise in demand for Covid-19 testing, with 63,000 referrals in the past week.
Niamh O’Beirne said they expected to see that number double next week.
A further 13 deaths with Covid-19 were announced on Wednesday bringing the Irish toll to 2,226.
There were also a further 1,718 confirmed cases of the virus.
As of 2pm, there were 455 Covid-19 positive patients in hospitals, of which 37 were in ICU.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has urged the public to limit their contacts.
“Ireland is no longer in a containment phase and is once again in a mitigation phase,” he said.
“Given the current levels of transmission in the community, every individual should consider themselves potentially infectious.
“It is essential that we all limit our contacts to our own household now, restrict our movements and do not give Covid-19 any further opportunities to spread.
“Everyone needs to stay at home other than for essential work or care.
“This is not the time to be visiting other houses.”