THE majority of Covid-19 public health restrictions will be removed from 6am on Saturday under proposals to be agreed by Cabinet this afternoon.
This includes limits on household visits, early closing time for hospitality and events, capacity restrictions for indoor and outdoor events including weddings, social distancing, the rule-of-six at a table, the Covid pass system and the requirement to maintain contact details for close contact tracing.
Pubs and restaurants are set to return to normal opening hours, and nightclubs will reopen tomorrow under plans being considered by the Coalition leaders.
Distancing between tables in hospitality venues, table service-only will also be removed while nightclubs will be allowed to reopen.
From Monday, businesses can begin a phased return to the workplace depending on the circumstances of the workplace and in consultation with employees.
Masks in all setting where they are currently regulated including retail outlets and public transport will be retained until February 28 as will the protective measures in schools and childcare facilities.
The pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) will be closed to new entrants from tomorrow (Saturday) with the existing PUP recipients to be transitioned to standard jobseekers’ rate of €208 from March 8, and not February 8 as previously intended.
The transition to full jobseekers’ terms will proceed after that with the first payments into bank accounts on April 5, according to a Cabinet memo prepared for Ministers on Friday.
The memo warns that the timelines may need to be revised should the epidemiological situation not improve as anticipated.
It also outlines plans to extend the enhanced rates of the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme for employers impacted by restrictions introduced in December through the month of February with a two-rate subsidy of €151.50 and €203 per week to apply in March and a flat rate of €100 per week to apply for a further two months in April and May.
The Covid Restrictions Support Scheme for businesses will not be extended beyond the end of January, but an extra week’s payment will be made to businesses next week.
Day health services and visits to nursing homes will no longer be curtailed on public health grounds.
People who are travelling out of the country will still have to produce EU Digital Covid Certificates and fill in passenger locator forms upon entry into Ireland.
The current public health guidance on close contact, people with symptoms, and those who test positive for Covid-19, which was introduced on January 12, will be reviewed at the end of February.
Earlier, the Tánaiste had resisted the suggestion that today is Freedom Day, warning that the possibility of later threats remains.
He said Nphet had recommended reopening on a phased basis – not immediately for some aspects of society.
Simon Harris, Minister for Third Level Education: “My own view is that restrictions shouldn't be in place a moment longer than there is public health rationale for them.”
“If the NPHET advice conveyed to Government today is that there isn't a public health rationale to keep the restrictions in place, we should be in position to unwind as quickly as possible.”
However, Mr Varadkar said the detail and the timing is for discussion and decision today by Cabinet.
“This is a virus that has surprised so many occasions.
“Nobody can rule out another wave after Omicron. Immunity does wane and there will be new variants of concern.
And of course, respiratory viruses spread more easily in winter time. Nobody can rule out the possibility of a sixth wave.
“Nobody can say for sure whether that variant would be a mild one or a severe one. That's why it's important that we continue to build on some of the changes that have been made during the course the last two years.”
The country had 900 more hospital beds than pre-pandemic and “we're going to need more,” Mr Varadkar continued.
“We have 40,000 nurses and midwives, we're going to need more. We have 40pc more doctors than we had 10 years ago. We're going to need more.
“We've increased ICU capacity by about 20pc, and we're also going to need more.”
On possible new viruses or variants, he said new monitoring systems were wanted to make sure they can be identified quickly.
“And also I think there'll be a big focus on permanent changes to the way we act as individuals.
“We may all choose to wear masks in certain settings in the future, particularly if we have symptoms. We may all decide that we don't go to work or we work from home if we have symptoms in particular.”
He added: “Something we're going to have to concentrate a bit more over the next couple of months and years is air quality.
“That’s because we know that good air quality reduces the transmission of all viruses. And I think perhaps that would help society, even in tackling things like the annual flu season,. We didn't do that as well in the past as we might do now.”
There is also a possibility that sporting venues will be allowed to return to full capacity over the weekend.
Outdoor events are currently limited to 5,000 people or 50pc of the venue’s capacity – but a Government source noted that Sunday’s Munster versus Wasps game in the Champions Cup could see larger numbers.
Ireland’s opening game of the Six Nations against Wales in the Aviva Stadium on February 5 will definitely be allowed take place in front of 50,000 spectators.
If capacity restrictions are lifted, it will be up to sporting organisations to decide how to manage a sudden return to larger crowds.
In addition, it is intended that a phased return to the office for workers would begin from next week and last until the end of February.
There are also plans to extend the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme to aid employers as they attempt to return to pre-pandemic levels of trading.
The Cabinet is due to meet at 3pm on Friday to approve the removal of many public health restrictions on foot of the Nphet advice on Thursday that “there is no longer a continuing public health rationale for the majority of the public health measures that are currently in place".
Taoiseach Micheál Martin will make an announcement around 6pm this evening following a meeting of the Cabinet.
It is understood the leaders will draw up a pathway to reopening under three broad headings: (i) immediate measures including the lifting of restrictions on hospitality and household gatherings; (ii) schools and workplaces and (iii) the use of Covid passes.
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Along with a return to normal hours for pubs and restaurants, it is expected that limits on cinema, theatres and other entertainment venues will end. However, Covid passes will still be required, possibly until the end of March.
Children will continue wearing masks in the classroom for the foreseeable future while the Department of Education puts extra emphasis on ensuring good ventilation in schools.
A source noted that extra precautions are necessary to reduce any risks to the leaving certificate exams.
A staggered return to the workplace is also expected. Much attention will focus on whether social distancing rules can be dropped in offices as employers would see this as a ‘game changer’.
The Cabinet is also expected to be told that the country must maintain its vaccination capacity in case another wave of Covid 19 hits later in the year.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has given the green light for a major reopening of society.
Even nightclubs will be allowed to open again following the recommendations.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan’s team only advised that masks should still be required in shops and on public transport, and the group also advised that returning to offices should be done on a phased basis.
Nphet has not provided any specific end date for when masks will no longer be required or any changes to the current rules for close contacts.
They also advised that measures in schools should remain until all eligible children have had the opportunity to take a full course of the vaccine.
However, all other restrictions can be removed, including those around social distancing.
Last night, the Restaurants Association of Ireland said all hospitality businesses should be allowed to trade as normal from today in light of Nphet’s recommendations.
“In light of Nphet’s public health advice to stand down many of the Covid-19 restrictions, the Restaurants Association of Ireland is calling on the Government to allow all hospitality businesses trade as normal from Friday, January 21,” said chief executive Adrian Cummins.
In a letter to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, Dr Holohan said that while certain measures such as mask wearing, vaccination and self-isolation if symptomatic must be maintained, “Nphet is of the view that there is no longer a continuing public health rationale for the majority of the public health measures that are currently in place”.
Dr Holohan said the available evidence around the Omicron variant internationally and its profile in Ireland “now allows for a fundamental change in the management of Covid-19” and a return to the strategy set out last August.
It is expected that all restrictions will not be removed in one go but rather on a phased basis, despite Nphet not specifically saying the rules should be lifted gradually.
It may not be until next month that nightclubs are permitted to reopen.
In a live televised address from the steps of Government Buildings, Taoiseach Micheál Martin will outline how restrictions will be lifted over the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, pubs and restaurants have called this morning for the opportunity to open late tonight and trade normally with no restrictions, for the first time in close to 23 months.
The Restaurants’ Association of Ireland (RAI) have said “today is the day” to open up fully and said businesses want the opportunity to trade normally as soon as possible.
“Nphet advice is to lift restrictions - we’ve heard over the last two years that she should also follow public health advice and that advice is now to lift restrictions with immediate effect if the government wishes. So, we’re saying to the government now, lift the 8pm ban on businesses. - that’s a very easy thing to do to return to normal hours,” Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the RAI said on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.
“For those businesses that are ready to operationalise and trade until normal trading hours tonight, they can do so. There will be some businesses that may not have the stock and they will get themselves ready as quickly as possible. Give the opportunity to those businesses to trade until normal hours tonight.
“Today is a good day for hospitality. We’re nearly two years into this and Nphet has decided it’s now safe to allow the country to begin to reopen. It’s up to government now to say when and we believe today is the day,” Mr Cummins said.
Among Nphet’s advice was the go-ahead to remove the use of Covid certs in domestic settings such as cinemas, pubs and restaurants. Restaurants and pubs will welcome the end of their use but will also be ready to use them in future if needed.
Mr Cummins said some people will exercise caution around Covid regardless of what government decides to do and said businesses will be prepared to reinstate the Covid cert should they need to do so, in the event of another variant.
The RAI has called for an extension of the business supports at their current levels for two more months. The current level of supports are due to be cut by 42pc at the end of this month.
Many businesses in this sector have been “economically flattened” and will be “on the brink of collapse” once the supports are reduced”, Mr Cummins said.
“We’ve had nearly 23 months of restrictions on hospitality and I think it’s only right we have an engaging conversation with government on those payments,” Mr Cummins said.
Tony Walker, general manager of the Slieve Russell hotel in Cavan, echoed the calls to resume normal trading today and said he was “absolutely delighted” at the news that Nphet have given the green light to remove restrictions on hospitality.
Mr Walker said government “locked businesses down pretty quickly so why not open up pretty quickly”.
Weddings form a third of the hotel’s business and the lifting of restrictions on hotels will provide a big boost to couples and hotels alike, Mr Walker said.