TÁNAISTE Leo Varadkar has said some of the public have already moved out of Level 5 - but warned of a “deteriorating” Covid-19 situation that could worsen if restrictions are eased next month.
Mr Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday that case numbers went up 9pc last week, will go up again this week, and that the Government is very worried about the situation.
The Fine Gael leader said a number of metrics were going in the wrong direction, including the 14-day incidence rate, GP Covid test referral rate and the test positivity rate. He said the R number - the reproductive rate of the virus - is now “probably above 1”.
Sources at the meeting said the Tánaiste pointed out the country is in a worse situation than it was at the end of November when restrictions were eased for three weeks before Christmas.
Ahead of an announcement on public health restrictions next week, Mr Varadkar said the Government would like to ease them to keep people on board because of fears that not doing so would see people making their own decisions.
But he said ministers were equally concerned that easing restrictions would result in people doing more than they are allowed to do.
Mr Varadkar agreed with a point made by Limerick TD Kieran O’Donnell who said the public had already moved out of Level 5.
The Tánaiste said it was the case that a portion of the public had moved out of Level 5, but said the dilemma was whether relaxing restrictions would make the situation worse. He said that the Government would have to make a judgment call based on Nphet advice.
The Fine Gael leader said the Government’s highest priority was keeping schools open and the full return of secondary schools. He said the second highest priority was people’s mental health and giving them “some relief” and “a little bit of extra freedom”.
Mr Varadkar faced calls from a number of TDs to ease the lockdown with calls for loosening restrictions on outdoor gatherings, underage sports, construction, and click and collect services.
However, some senators, including Martin Conway, Micheál Carrigy and Mary Seery Kearney urged the Government to be more cautious ahead of next week’s announcement.
Former justice minister Charlie Flanagan, backbenchers John Paul Phelan and David Stanton, and senator Jerry Buttimer were among a number of attendees who called for the 5km travel limit to be scrapped.
Former housing minister Eoghan Murphy queried whether restrictions could be loosened on a regional basis. Mr Murphy also said there was evidence people were already breaking the restrictions in small ways.
OPW Minister Patrick O’Donovan said something needed to be done to lift the morale of the country.
Mr Varadkar said the advice from deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn was that no county in Ireland could move to looser restriction at this time.
In response to queries on vaccine bonuses, Mr Varadkar said it made sense to allow people over 70 who have been vaccinated more freedoms, but that at present there were too few people being vaccinated. He said the Government was monitoring the impact of loosening restrictions for vaccinated people in Denmark and Israel.
He said that even with vaccinating all of the elderly and vulnerable there would be 35 hospitalisations for every 1,000 positive cases which would not be sustainable.
On the forthcoming Seanad by-elections, Mr Varadkar said that the decision of Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu to run as an unofficial Green Party candidate had created difficulty.
He said the Green Party had agreed to back Fine Gael’s Maria Byrne for the agriculture panel and Fianna Fáil’s Gerry Horkan for the industrial and commercial panel given Green Senator Pippa Hackett was not opposed in a 2019 by-election and on the understanding that the two larger coalition parties would back a Green candidate in a future by-election.
But he said there were indications Ms Chu would be supported by Sinn Féin for the commercial panel and that Sinn Féin would back unionist Ian Marshall for the agriculture panel. He urged colleagues to canvass Fianna Fáil and Green Party Oireachtas members to support Ms Byrne.
The party also backed a motion calling on Fianna Fáil’s Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien to address the parliamentary party in the coming weeks.