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Leo Varadkar: Country will start to slowly reopen on May 18 – but schools won’t return until September

  • Country to start to reopen over 15 weeks
  • Schools will remain closed until September
  • Over-70s advised they can exercise away from home from Tuesday
  • Exercise restrictions to be extended from 2km to 5km
  • Outdoor workers to return to jobs on May 18

  • Weddings may be able to take place in August

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Stock photo: PA

Stock photo: PA

PA

Stock photo: PA

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has set out a plan for Ireland to start to reopen over 15 weeks from May 18 but until then most of the current restrictions will remain in place.

Mr Varadkar said thousands of lives have been saved and Covid-19 infections prevented by the sacrifices people have made.

He said: "Let's finish what we started".

Mr Varadkar added: "While there is still so much that we do not know. Tonight there is hope.

"Hope will drive us forward as we plan to emerge safely from this crisis."

Mr Varadkar said that the coronavirus crisis has been "dispiriting", there has been the "frustration" of living with the restrictions and "uncertainty" of when life will return to normal.

He said there's also been fear of the virus itself, people are lonely in isolation and many have lost their jobs.

He said many fear losing businesses.

And he said many people have lost their lives.

He said: "I yearn for the day when it stops."

But he explained why the decision has been taken to leave most of the current restrictions in place.

He also confirmed that schools won’t re-open until September.

It means the only students who may return to classrooms in the next few months will be Leaving Cert candidates.

Education Minister Joe McHugh is still hoping to bring Leaving Cert students back in July “subject to adequate planning and public health advice” in order to do the State exam in July and August, his spokesman said.

“Planning for the Leaving Cert is still being discussed, including through the Advisory Group set up by the Department involving education stakeholders,” the spokesman said. “It is still hoped to bring just Leaving Cert students back in July, subject to adequate planning and public health advice.”

Fianna Fáil said the Leaving Cert should not take place and that alternatives should now be explored to take pressure off parents and students.

The party's education spokesperson Thomas Byrne said: "Given that the Leaving Cert is not mentioned in the road map published this evening and schools aren't opening till autumn and given the preparations are not in place to have a fair Leaving Cert, I'm fully convinced the Leaving Cert should not take place.

"There is no scope for it to take place. Take the pressure off parents and students. I've discussed alternatives with some universities and with the Minister over last few weeks and they do exist."

Higher and further education colleges will also remain closed until the autumn, Mr Varadkar confirmed, but there is no surprise about that as the academic year is coming to a close.

Schools and colleges have been closed since March 12.

Schools were concerned about the practicalities of reopening in May or June.

In explaining why most restrictions will remain in place until then Mr Varadkar said "we have not yet won this fight"

He added: "every day we have too many new cases... and every day we have too many deaths".

He said that scientists and doctors have said that if restrictions are relaxed too soon the health service could be overwhelmed and "everything we've achieve could be lost".

"We must go on for a short time more," he added.

He said there is a plan to ease lock-down from May 18 but two more weeks of "tight restrictions" are needed to "weaken the virus further so it doesn't have the strength to come back".

He said the plan is to reopen the country in a "slow, staged way" of three week intervals, with the fifth phase beginning on August 10.

Mr Varadkar warned that the risk of a second wave of the virus is "ever present" and the country can only move from one phase to the next if the virus stays under control.

In the absence of a vaccine or effective treatment hygiene procedures and social distancing must be maintained.

He said "it will take some time for our lives to get back to normal, a new normal".

Mr Varadkar also said: "not long from now on some summer night we will see our friends again".

The first phase of easing restrictions will begin on May 18, when open air workers, such as builders, landscapers and roofers, will return to work in two weeks time under new plans being discussed by the Cabinet.

Among the measures that could take place then - depending on progress in fighting the spread of the virus - would be the reopening of construction sites.

Garden centres and hardware stores could also reopen on that date.

Social distancing would have to be practised at such businesses.

That date could also see people being allowed outside in groups of four including being able to meet up with non-family members.

Outdoor activities like fishing may also be allowed.

The second phase of easing restrictions will begin on June 8 when some retail outlets, marts and libraries are due to reopen.

Weddings may once again be able to take place in mid August under the government’s plan for reopening the country.

Larger social gatherings, including weddings, will provisionally be permitted in the fifth phase of the lockdown exit strategy.

Garden centres, hardware stores, construction sites and other outdoor workplaces are to reopen in the first phase on May 18.

Meanwhile, older people who have been 'cocooning' are advised they can take exercise away from their homes under proposed new coronavirus regulations being discussed at Cabinet.

Over 70s will be told there is a low risk to their health if they exercise from next week but they will be urged to stay in their homes as much as possible.

And the 2km limit on travel and exercise for the wider population will be extended to 5km from next Tuesday.

The previous coronavirus restrictions were due to expire next Tuesday, May 5.

The chairman of NPHET, Mr Holohan said that if there is continued progress in suppressing the virus the group has a "high degree of confidence" restrictions can start being eased on May 18.

Health Minister Simon Harris said the "indicative roadmap" may be varied depending on the progress in fighting the disease.

"If it's possible to move more quickly of course we will," he said.

He confirmed that under the plan people won't be able to visit family who live more than 20km away until the phase that's due to begin in July.

But he suggested that some children will be able to visit grandparents who are over-70 from phase two which begins on June 8.

Mr Holohan was asked about small weddings, which are due to be allowed in August.

He declined to specify how many people would fall into the definition of a small wedding, saying: "it will depend on the progress we're making."

Mr Harris said: "We are not going to leave one restriction in place longer than it takes to save people's lives."

He confirmed that he is to sign an order tonight to extend the powers of gardaí to enforce restrictions until May 18.

Mr Holohan was asked about use of face coverings by the public.

He said medical-grade face masks must be reserved for health workers and patients.

But he said face coverings for the general public in certain circumstances he said they have been recommended in other countries and may form "an important part in easing restrictions" here.

He said the advice may be to use them on public transport and in certain retail settings where social distancing is difficult.

Mr Holohan said work would continue on developing guidance for face coverings in the next two weeks.

He said: "We're not saying rush out and start using them now."

Meanwhile, a number of universities have released details of their re-opening arrangements in the autumn, running into November for first years, eight weeks later than usual.

Dublin City University (DCU) will re-open for continuing students and new postgraduate taught students on Monday October 5.

DCU said the start date for incoming first years remained unclear, but it would be November at the earliest - that is based on the Leaving Cert kicking off on July 29, which is subject to public health advice.

The university said it would bring students and staff physically onto campus only when, and in a manner, that is safe to do so and would continue to be guided by the HSE and the Department of Health.

DCU has also announced that it is planning for dual-mode delivery of teaching, involving both online and face-to-face delivery as appropriate, which will involve revisions to the academic calendar, changes to programme structures, and new approaches to the use of space on campus.

And, in anticipation of social distancing requirements operating through the rest of 2020 and into 2021, DCU said it was unlikely to be able to run any large-group, campus-based activities in the first semester at the very least.

Arrangements across the higher education sector are expected to be broadly similar.

The University of Limerick (UL) also expects to welcome its first years at the beginning of November, but said it would depend on a number of factors including when the Leaving Cert takes place and the CAO offer/acceptance process.

Most other UL undergraduate and postgraduate students will begin on September 28, although some programmes, such as education and health will have different dates.

UL is also planning for a blended approach to teaching and learning, with a combination of online and face to face, such as for laboratory c lasses, studio time and some seminars and tutorials.

“This will be limited in order to insure the health and safety of our community and to work within the government restrictions. Any planned approach will need to take account of the possibility that future full or partial closures may well be called for at short notice,” the university stated.

UL has also announced that Erasmus and Non EU Exchange mobility programmes will be suspended for the first semester and alternative programmes will be put in place for those students who had been scheduled to study abroad for their autumn semester.

NUI Galway has also pencilled in September 28 as the start state for returning students.

The government has been cautioning all week that changes - if any - to the extraordinary limits on everyday life will be minimal amid continuing concern over the numbers of people still contracting the virus.

With many restrictions on public movement to remain in place, the Cabinet is also agreeing to extend two social welfare measures that were due to expire on May 9.

The enhanced Covid-19 illness benefit of €350 paid to people diagnosed with the disease or who are a suspected case will now be paid until June 19.

The temporary abolition of the three-day waiting period for jobseekers' benefits has also been extended until the same date.

Ministers have been informed that the extension of illness benefit by further seven weeks will cost the exchequer "in the region of" €30 million and the waiving of the waiting period for jobseekers will cost approximately €2.7m. The money for both will be drawn from the social insurance fund.

The Cabinet was informed that the temporary wage subsidy scheme is due to expire on June 19, while the special pandemic unemployment payment is due to expire a week earlier. Ministers expect that both schemes will have to be extended with some adjustments given the ongoing emergency.

Online Editors


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