Concern has been raised in the Republic of Ireland after figures showed it has the world’s highest number of confirmed new Covid-19 cases per million people.
The statistics were released by Johns Hopkins University in the US.
The taoiseach (Irish PM) said the new south-east of England variant of the virus “has had a significant impact on transmission” in Ireland.
Mícheál Martin denied his government had given mixed messages by opening up parts of the economy before Christmas.
On Monday the country recorded eight more deaths and 4,929 new cases.
Speaking on Monday, he said public compliance with the highest possible level of restrictions in Ireland was already weakening in the two weeks just before the Christmas break.
He told the Newstalk radio station that the Irish government “never contemplated” sealing the border with Northern Ireland as a way to restrict the growth of the virus.
Such a prospect never seemed “realistic” to him, he added.
He said he would encourage people out walking to wear masks.
Mr Martin said he was told by the country’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan that the new variant of the virus accounted for 45% of the most recent 92 samples that underwent additional testing, compared with 25% of those tested in the week to 3 January and 9% two weeks earlier.
Meanwhile, the president of the Irish Hospital Consultants’ Association described the situation in the Republic of Ireland’s acute hospitals as “truly a national emergency”.
Professor Alan Irvine told RTÉ’s News at One the acute hospital system was “under the greatest pressure that it’s ever been in living memory”.
He said 1,000 people had been admitted with Covid-related illnesses to acute hospitals since 2 January and admission figures were doubling, in both intensive care and general acute beds, every week.
Prof Irvine warned if the trend continues: “The system really will not be able to cope, so it’s truly an emergency in the acute health system.”
Hospital apology amid Covid surge
The health service has been under pressure created by the pandemic, with a hospital in County Donegal apologising to patients for long waiting times on Sunday.
Some patients had to wait in ambulances outside Letterkenny University Hospital on Sunday.
The hospital said a large number of confirmed or suspected cases of Covid-19 required treatment, limiting the number of available beds.
There were up to seven ambulances waiting outside the hospital at 21:00 local time, according to Irish national broadcaster RTÉ News.
The hospital said the delays meant people could not be admitted to a dedicated Covid-19 zone.
Clinical teams assessed patients in the ambulances outside to ensure they were treated in order of priority, said the hospital.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Association (INMO) said it was “exceptionally concerned” about the situation.
As of 14:00 local time on Sunday, there were 1,452 Covid-19 patients in Irish hospitals and 125 of those were in intensive care units.