Health Minister Simon Harris has signalled schools could be reopened one day a week before the end of term this summer but has ruled out mass gatherings for the foreseeable future, throwing into doubt the prospect of this year's All-Ireland championships and annual concerts and festivals.
n an interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr Harris said reopening schools for one day a week was just one of the measures being considered by the Government as part of a number of plans to ease the Covid-19 restrictions.
Other plans include allowing people to exercise further than 2km from their homes and letting the over-70s, who are currently 'cocooning' at home, go for a walk.
But Mr Harris has said pubs are unlikely to reopen to maximum capacity, "packed" with people, until there is an effective vaccine or treatment for the disease, which is not expected until early next year. Such a development would put the future viability of many pubs and restaurants in jeopardy.
Last night Department of Health data confirmed 41 more deaths from Covid-19 and another 778 cases, bringing the total to 14,758. There have now been 571 deaths linked to the virus here.
It's highly unlikely we're going to be seeing very large kind of mass gatherings this year
While Mr Harris praised the GAA for its actions regarding the virus, he also warned that it is unlikely there would be any major sporting events this year.
"I think some of the decisions taken by the GAA seem very sensible," he said. "It's highly unlikely we're going to be seeing very large kind of mass gatherings this year. Could you get to a point where you can't have massive GAA matches, but you could have local kids having a kickabout safely, that's the sort of space that we're in, that we need to work our way through."
The minister's view that there is unlikely to be large mass gatherings before the end of the year places the most serious question marks yet over the GAA football, hurling and camogie championships, other sporting events and festivals and concerts such as Electric Picnic, which have become staple features in the Irish summer calendar.
Schools in Denmark began to reopen last week with strict social-distancing rules in place, the first such development in Europe.
Mr Harris's comments raise the prospect that schools here could be partially reopened sooner rather than later. He said any easing of current restrictions, which are in effect until May 5, would be dependent on continued public compliance and the advice of public health officials.
"I'd like to see a situation whereby our schools could come back or at least could come partially back," he said, adding that this could happen for one day a week initially.
"I'd like to see a situation where you could expand somewhat the areas in which people can go beyond their home. I'm conscious of the fact that cocooning may well remain a reality for quite a period of time because we know people, once they reach a certain age, are vulnerable.
But is there a safe way that they can get out every now and again and take a walk?"
Mr Harris said social or physical distancing would be a reality until there was a vaccine or an effective treatment for the disease.
"What's not going to come back quickly are scenarios in which we can't safely socially distance," he said.
"So I can't see how people can be in packed pubs again as long as this virus is still with us and we don't have a vaccine or an effective treatment."
Mr Harris also strongly defended the Government's response to the spread of the virus in nursing homes.
More than half of Covid-19 deaths in Ireland have been connected to these care facilities.
Amid criticism from some doctors, the Opposition and Nursing Homes Ireland (NHI), the national representative body for the private and voluntary nursing home sector, Mr Harris said: "If it's a choice you're presenting me between taking the view of a trade body [NHI] or a public health doctor on a global pandemic, I'm going to take the side of the public health doctor every single time.
He said NHI "is an excellent organisation" but "they're not the public health experts".
Mr Harris said he would "have lots to say" about the future of caring for the elderly when the pandemic was over and said a greater focus on community care would eventually render the current nursing home model "out of date".
He added: "There'll always be a place for it but positive ageing and respecting the dignity of older people will involve much more in the community rather than in any kind of building."
Mr Harris also said he would like to remain Minister for Health when the next government was formed.
"I believe it's a worthwhile job and I'd love to continue doing it," he said.
Mr Harris's comments come as it emerged that residential centres for people with disability were preparing for a surge of Covid-19 cases as clusters continue to multiply in nursing homes.
Dr Joanne McCarthy, head of policy and research with the Disability Federation of Ireland, said the residential centres were "behind nursing homes" in terms of the spread of the infection. "The disability sector is only going on that Covid-19 curve now.
"We're hoping that because most people are living in smaller family units [rather than institutional settings], that might contain the spread," she said.
A shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) continues to worry staff in nursing homes, with more than a third now managing clusters of the virus. An internal memo circulated by Dr Colm Henry, clinical director of the HSE, advised nursing homes that reserves of gowns and face masks would become exhausted soon unless new supplies were secured.
It advised staff not to wear gowns if they were at low risk of infection and that it may be necessary to prioritise the use of gowns and masks for certain high-risk work.
"Given the critical supply situation, the session may need to include care of patients with confirmed Covid-19 and those with suspect Covid-19," the memo said.
It continued that it was "important" to explore the possibility of using reusable cloth gowns which it advises, if covered with a plastic apron, provide a substantial measure of protection.
A separate memo, released yesterday, revealed that nursing homes would be allowed to order PPE based on the number of confirmed or suspect cases of Covid-19 in their centres. The NHI said yesterday that "rationing" personal protective equipment in older person's facilities was "not appropriate" and "flies in the face of previous commitments".
Dr Henry said last Friday that although the HSE was "in a very perilous state" due to a lack of supply of gowns, the situation had been resolved for now.