Ireland recorded the world's highest Covid-19 infection rate despite being lauded for its success in responding to previous waves of the virus.
The country, with a population of almost five million, is battling a “tsunami of infection” after restrictions were relaxed over Christmas.
In December, it had the EU’s lowest incidence rate after becoming the first member state to enter a second national lockdown – now Ireland tops a world table that tracks new infections.
There were 1,288 confirmed cases per million of the population on Monday, according to data compiled by the University of Oxford, placing Ireland first, ahead of the Czech Republic and Slovenia.
This chart shows how the rate of infection in the country has shot up in the lst couple of weeks.
The soaring infection rate resulted in healthcare workers who have had close contact with a Covid-positive patient being asked to return to work if they are asymptomatic.
More than 7,000 healthcare workers in the country are out of work.
Irish Health Services chief executive Ann O’Connor said that under ordinary circumstances close contacts should remain at home but that “that is not available to us in this instance”.
“The reality is now that the demand is so high and the numbers are becoming so high that we need people at work and given the level of absenteeism, that is becoming very difficult,” she told RTE Radio on Wednesday.
Ireland officially registered more than 93,000 cases on January 1, but that figure spiralled to more than 150,000 by last Monday.
On Tuesday, Switzerland announced a quarantine on Irish travellers as World Health Organisation emergencies director Michael Ryan said the nation has "one of the most acute increases in disease incidence of any country".
The head of Ireland's health service said that hospitals were "beyond strain". There were 1,700 patients in hospital with the virus on Tuesday, nearly double the peak registered in Ireland's first wave early last year.
Schools, non-essential shops and hospitality venues are shut under lockdown rules in force.
Prime Minister Micheal Martin said last week that healthcare workers were facing a "tsunami of infection".
"Unless you are involved in absolutely essential work you have no reason to be away from your home," he told the public.
Ireland relaxed coronavirus restrictions over the festive period when pubs, restaurants, gyms, hairdressers and non-essential shops were permitted to reopen in December, having been closed during the country’s second national lockdown.
The decision was against the advice of Ireland's public health officials, who recommended that stringent measures continue.
Ireland paying price of relaxation
Ireland relaxed restrictions again in late December, allowing up to three households to mingle as Mr Martin aimed to give citizens a "meaningful Christmas", and chief medical officer Tony Holohan said there was "a significant change in the patterns of socialisation" as a result.
He said before the Christmas period there were "pre-pandemic levels of socialisation" helping the virus to spread.
The country is also experiencing an increase in cases of a variant of coronavirus, believed to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible and first identified in south-east England.
Ireland announced the first confirmed case of the variant on Christmas Day. On Monday, health officials said data from the first week of 2021 showed the new variant accounted for 45 per cent of Covid-19 samples tested.
Ireland banned flights from Britain from December 20 until January 9 and travellers arriving must now present a negative Covid-19 test.
However, media reports suggested its border arrangements hamper efforts to prevent the spread of the new variant from Britain.
Ireland borders the UK province of Northern Ireland and citizens on either side of the frontier were involved in a sectarian conflict known as The Troubles, which ended in 1998.
Under a peace deal, the 498-kilometre border was opened and it has been deemed too politically sensitive to shut it down.
Mr Martin said it was "very hard" to seal the border.
He also said it was "overly simplistic to just focus on one area" to blame for Ireland's vertiginous infection rate.
"I'm accepting socialisation, I would add the UK variant and I would add other factors as well," he told Newstalk radio.