DUBLIN (Reuters) - A sharp week-on-week rise in the number of people in Ireland being referred for COVID-19 testing this week is a "worrying" development, Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said, as the government weighs a slight easing of restrictions.
Ireland has been under strict lockdown since late December, which the government says will be gradually unwound over the coming months. An easing of limits keeping people to within 5 km (3 miles) of their homes, permitting some outdoor sports and a reopening of construction are under consideration for April 5.
While the number of cases per 100,000 people measured over the past 14 days has fallen to 158 from a high of more than 1,500 during Ireland's deadliest wave to date in January, infections have begun to gradually rise over the last week or so.
Citing data from an online community tracker run by local doctors, which has provided an early warning sign in previous waves, Varadkar said a doubling of the average number of cases meeting test criteria meant higher infection numbers were likely in the next few days.
The head of Ireland's health service operator, Paul Reid, said on Wednesday that although the number of people in hospital or in need of critical care continued to fall, swabbing referrals were up 35% week-on-week on Monday and 42% on Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told Newstalk radio that, even though cases remained stubbornly high, he expected some limited removal of restrictions in April, particularly around the 5 km travel limit and outdoor sports.
The shutdown of most building sites since January could be particularly damaging for Ireland, where housing shortages have pushed rents to record levels and prompted a fresh rise in purchase prices in recent months.
The vaccine supply problems felt across the European Union are also limiting the government's options. The inoculation of people in Ireland over the age of 70 and those with serious underlying conditions has weeks to run.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson)