By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Increased socialising around Christmas - and not a new COVID-19 variant - has driven Ireland's rapid transformation from having the lowest infection rate in the European Union to the fastest rate of deterioration, health officials said.
Prime Minister Micheál Martin said on Wednesday the highly infectious new variant discovered in neighbouring Britain was spreading in Ireland at a rate that has surpassed the most pessimistic models available to the government.
Ireland's top virologist, Cillian De Gascun, said late on Friday laboratories had found 16 instances of the variant from a sample of 169 positive cases.
Philip Nolan, the head of Ireland's COVID-19 modelling group, said on Saturday he believed the variant represented between 5% and 17% of the current prevalence.
"Right now we believe the UK variant is here at a relatively low level, even with that small sample," Nolan told national broadcaster RTE.
"We saw an even more intense level of socialisation and viral transmission over Christmas than we might have expected and that's what's leading us to the really precarious position we're in now."
Nolan said cases could peak anywhere between 3,000 to 6,000 a day and Ireland was set to report more than 3,000 cases on Saturday, a near doubling of its daily record.
That will partly be due to a backlog of positive tests, but Nolan said the surge suggests the number of people infected by someone with COVID-19 - the so-called reproduction number - may have risen as high as 1.8 or 2.0.
The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 rose to 581 on Saturday from 508 a day earlier, and has more than doubled in a week.
Infections are also spreading rapidly across the open border in the British-run region of Northern Ireland. Cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days have risen to 577 after the health authority reported another 3,576 cases over the past 48 hours.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin, Editing by Timothy Heritage)