Level 5 lockdown restrictions are set to be extended by at least another six weeks , with only schools and the construction sector likely to be allowed to reopen before Easter.
A ‘refreshed’ Living with Covid plan will be published the week after next, but senior figures involved in drafting the document say it is unlikely to give definitive timelines or dates for reopening society and the economy.
Subject to Cabinet approval, the current Level 5 restrictions, which are due to expire on March 5, are likely to be extended until at least April 12.
As well as keeping most shops and hospitality venues closed, it is also likely to mean no changes to the current ‘stay at home’ advisory and the 5km travel limit – although Tánaiste Leo Varadkar is pushing for households to be allowed to meet outdoors after March 5.
The Government is primarily focused on the phased reopening of schools and the construction sector next month, with close monitoring of the impact of increased movement of parents and construction workers likely to dictate whether more restrictions can be eased in April.
But the non-essential retail and hospitality sectors will be closed for several more weeks. Pubs, restaurants, bars and many hotels are not expected to reopen until May or June at the earliest and with a focus on outdoor dining and drinking. But reopening will depend on case numbers, hospitalisations and the reproductive rate of the virus.
The revised plan twill outline a pathway for reopening, but at present it is not intended to give definitive dates or timelines for sectors – with a strong desire in Government to ensure this is the last lockdown of the pandemic.
“The revised plan will try and outline a pathway, but it won’t be definitive and the Government wants to prevent an open-close-open-close approach,” a senior Government source said.
A second senior Government source said it made sense to attempt to reduce daily case numbers to very low levels, while vaccinating high-risk people through to the end of March.
But a third Government source pointed out that some form of restrictions on movement would be needed to ensure mass vaccination centres could operate safely. “There will be no grand reopening,” the source said. “Vaccination plays a really important part in all this, but it can’t be threatened either.”
Ministers hope improving weather in the spring and summer will pave the way for some easing of restrictions on outdoor gatherings. Mr Varadkar told his parliamentary party last night that Covid-19 case numbers were falling at a rate of 30pc week on week. He said the lockdown was working and this strengthened the case to reopen schools in February and March.
He said that the revision of the existing Living with Covid plan later this month would take account of the vaccination programme and the emergence of new virus variants. He said the Government would give continuation dates for various pandemic supports schemes that were due to expire at the end of March.
Meanwhile, there was a big jump in the number of family outbreaks of the virus last week in private homes – up by 37 to 72.
The more infectious UK strain of the virus means more close contacts of a person who is infected are testing positive.
People who are close contacts will now be tested twice – including on day 10 of exposure. If their second test on day 10 finds the virus is “not detected”, they can end their restriction of movement then.
Meanwhile, there were 54 Covid-related deaths and 1,006 newly diagnosed cases yesterday, indicating slow but steady progress is being made in curbing the spread.
The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital has fallen to 1,032 but 173 who are seriously ill remain in intensive care, with 40 more hospitalisations in the previous 24 hours.
Among the new cases yesterday, 516 were in Dublin, 63 in Cork, 46 in Galway, 43 in Meath and 36 in Louth, while the remaining 302 were spread across all other counties.
Covid-19 vaccination figures show 153,654 first doses have been given up to last Sunday; 86,833 people have received the two doses.
Meanwhile, the National Immunisation Advisory Committee is to examine the recommendation from the World Health Organisation that the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine can be given to adults of all ages.