The Government has conceded that the National Vaccination Programme is the only chance the country has of returning to normality a year into the pandemic.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin pinned his hope on the vaccine roll-out as he published a new plan for “managing the virus” after ditching his original strategy of living with the virus.
Launching the plan, called ‘Covid-19 Resilience and Recovery 2021 – The Path Ahead’, Mr Martin said the “end is truly in sight” but added that the vaccine programme needed to be accelerated before the country could be reopened.
“The vaccination programme will completely change the landscape and transform the options available to us as a society for reopening and renewing our country,” he said.
Speaking at the same event, deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn said that the vaccine is “our most powerful tool” in battling the virus, and added: “There are brighter days ahead.”
Reports that the EU would receive only half of its intended supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the second quarter of the year looked to overshadow the launch.
However, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly insisted the shortage had been factored into the Government’s target of having 60pc of the country’s adults fully vaccinated by the end of June.
It is hoped 82pc of all adults will have received their first vaccine at the same date.
The new plan was launched after the Cabinet agreed to extend Level 5 restrictions until April 5, while reopening schools and childcare on a phased basis. Around 320,000 students will return to school on March 1, including junior and senior infants, first and second class and Leaving Cert students.
This will be reviewed by Nphet in two weeks and may then lead to the rest of primary school classes and fifth-year secondary students returning to school on March 15.
Another review of schools will be carried out on April 12 and, if there are no concerns about the spread of the virus, all other classes may then return.
Childcare will return on a phased basis on March 8, with the State’s Early Childhood Care and Education preschool scheme resuming first.
By March 29, it is hoped all childcare services will return if transmission of the virus is under control.
Business supports and the Pandemic Unemployment Payment will be extended until the end of June, under the new Covid plan.
A review of overall coronavirus restrictions will be carried out in March ahead of plans to ease them on April 5.
However, the Government will only consider lifting the 5km travel ban and it will not permit inter-county movement in the next two months.
It may also allow small groups of people meet outdoors, and some sporting activity. However, the Government did not provide details on what will be permitted.
Another review will then be carried out in April ahead of restrictions possibly being eased further in May.
It is expected construction will return in April, but the ban on building will remain in place next month despite Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien saying he expected to return on March 5.
The plan was described as “damp squib” and “underwhelming” by a number of senior Government sources yesterday.
Tourism Minister Catherine Martin raised concern at Cabinet that the plan did not go far enough for sectors still shut down due to Government restrictions.
Ms Martin told the Cabinet that sectors, especially those under her brief, expected a roadmap for exiting lockdown and may not believe the new plan contained one.
Irish Hotels Federation president Elaina Fitzgerald Kane called for more support for her industry, saying a failure to do so will have “ramifications for the future of Ireland’s tourism offering and for the economy that could take decades to remedy”.
Restaurants Association of Ireland CEO Adrian Cummins criticised the lack of details for when the hospitality industry could reopen.
“If we are all in this together why are we; the public, businesses and employees, not being informed of the plan for reopening sectors?” Mr Cummins said.
Labour Party leader Alan Kelly also said the plan lacked “clear metrics and targets” for easing restrictions and “over-relies on vaccination roll-out”. “This is more of the same, with a reliance on continued lockdowns until vaccines reach enough of the population,” Mr Kelly said.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald criticised the Government for the delay in introducing a mandatory quarantine programme. “People are told they can’t travel 5km from their home and the Government still has a very reckless approach to international travel through our airports and ports,” she said.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly pulled out of an appearance on RTÉ’s Prime Time. The move came after he faced criticism over comments he made about schools reopening on Monday night on RTÉ. His spokesperson said he had to focus on the vaccination programme.