THE Government has announced a major plan to begin a cautious reopening of the country as we move into the summer following nearly four months under Level 5 lockdown. Here is what you need to know.
In his address to the nation this evening, Taoiseach Micheál Martin declared that we are “on the final stretch of this terrible journey”.
“This summer, our businesses and our public services will safely reopen. We will finally be meeting and enjoying the company of friends and family once again,” he said.
"We will be able to travel within and enjoy our beautiful country again. Jobs and livelihoods will be restored. And most importantly, the worst of this awful pandemic will be behind us. Steadily, and safely, let’s get through this final phase together.”
There will be a minor easing of restrictions during next month.
From April 12, the 5km travel limit will be relaxed so that people can travel around their county for exercise and recreation or within 20km of their residence if crossing county boundaries. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that the Government's message would change from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay local’.
Also from that date, outdoor meetings of two households will be permitted but not in private gardens. All secondary school students will return to in-class teaching after the Easter holidays and a staggered return of the construction sector will begin with work on private homes and childcare facilities the first to be allowed, involving around 14,000 workers.
From April 19, training for senior inter-county GAA panels and certain high-performance athletes will be permitted.
From April 26, outdoor pitches, tennis courts and golf courses will reopen; outdoor sports training for children in pods of 15 will resume; and outdoor visitor attractions - zoos, wildlife parks, and heritage sites – will reopen. The number of mourners able to attend a funeral will increase from 10 to 25.
In the last week of April, the Government will examine a phased reopening of the wider economy starting from May 4, including the full resumption of construction. The non-essential retail sector will also be examined including the return of click-and-collect services as well as the reopening of outdoor retail like garden centres.
The resumption of religious services, all non-contact sports training, and the reopening of personal services, including hairdressers and barbers, as well museums, libraries and galleries on a staggered basis will also be considered.
Additional freedoms for those who are vaccinated will also be considered for May, the Taoiseach said in his address.
The Taoiseach’s address made no reference to the fate of bars, pubs and restaurants, but Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said at a later press conference that the reopening of hospitality in June will be considered if the reopening of other sectors in May goes well. Financial supports for businesses will remain in place until at least the end of June, he confirmed.
The Government has also announced that from today two fully vaccinated people or two fully vaccinated households will be able to meet indoors or outdoors two weeks after they have had their second doses. No face coverings or social distancing will be required but more detailed guidance will be issued in the coming days.
A significant overhaul of the framework for vaccinating the population will see people vaccinated based on how old they are once all over-70s, the vulnerable and those with underlying health conditions are vaccinated. The previous framework prioritised people on the basis of both their age and occupation.
This will be ditched in favour of what Mr Martin described as “a much simpler and faster model” moving down through different age cohorts. This will start with people aged between 64 and 55 no matter their occupation and work its way down, scrapping cohorts such as keyworkers in essential jobs who cannot avoid exposure to Covid-19. Teachers, gardaí, childcare workers and others will not be pleased with this change. The Taoiseach said it was based on advice from the National Immunisation Advisory Council. “We cannot set aside the science,” he said when asked about the fairness of the move.
He also said that close to three million doses will be administered by the end of May; nearly five million by early July; and six million by the end of July.
Towards the end of May, the Taoiseach said, the Government will look at the reopening of hotels, B&Bs, guesthouses in June.
The Cabinet was told earlier that it is envisaged that inter-county travel and a domestic holiday season will be possible from July onwards with restrictions eased in a manner not dissimilar to last summer.
“We expect people to be able to holiday in Ireland this summer,” Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said at the Government press conference. He said that “later in the year” the Coalition will look at the prospect of international travel.
The Tánaiste also said there are plans for an increase in the use of antigen testing, increased walk-in test centres, and enhanced contact tracing – although we’ve been hearing about that last one for months. There will also be a new requirement for people to undergo an additional PCR test once they arrive in the country – the details of which are to be worked out in the coming days for the roughly 1,000 people a day coming into the State.
The slow and phased approach to reopening is with a view to ensuring that we do not have to lockdown again in the autumn. Driving this is not just the obvious desire to escape the pandemic’s hold over the nation but the crippling cost of keeping the State shutdown. To give one example today, the Department of Social Protection paid over €132m in pandemic unemployment payments for just this week.