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Micheál Martin: Schools will not fully re-open before St Patrick’s Day as country faces tightening of restrictions

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Schools will not fully re-open before St Patrick’s Day as the country is facing a tightening of restrictions in the coming week, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has indicated.

Concern is growing over new variants of the Covid-19 virus with Mr Martin telling the Irish Independent that the time has come to introduce a mandatory quarantine for people arriving into Ireland from abroad.

He also signaled today that “innovative ways” of reopening education needs to be looked at as the new UK strain of the virus is now rampant across the country.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One with Brendan O’Connor, Mr Martin said the Government want numbers to be in the low hundreds before reopening schools.

"The (case numbers) will have to be somewhere similar to where we were in October or November,” he said.

However, he added that in these months schools did “get through” with relatively high cases so he’s conscious of giving specific figures.

“The full million won’t be back (before St Patrick’s day). We can phase things and look at things differently,” the Taoiseach said.

"We need to think about this. We need to be innovative and obviously parallel with the way the virus is changing we need to adapt our approaches in terms of the mass movement of young people and students.

"I am passionate about education but with a million people involved we are going to have to look at it differently.”

He added that for the Government special education is a priority and they will be looking at this first.

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Hundreds of parents with children with special needs were let down this week as in-person special education did not recommence on Thursday as planned. Speaking about this, the Taoiseach said “it was a failure all round”.

He said in the coming weeks that a decision will be made on how to reopen special education safely, adding that it can’t be “one against the other” as a division has been somewhat apparent between parents and school staff and the Government and teaching unions.

Mr Martin added: “I think there was a mismatch between people in a leadership position and people saying ‘just not yet’ around the concerns of public health.”

Meanwhile, passengers arriving into Ireland may be held in quarantine hotels for at least five days if they do not arrive with a negative Covid-19 test.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Mr Martin said he is considering a number of quarantining options for international travellers as part of an attempt to stop the spread of the virus in Ireland.

The Taoiseach said he expected hotels, including the Citywest in Dublin, to be used as quarantine centres for people arriving in Ireland.

“You could be in quarantine until you get a test after five days that proves to be negative,” Mr ­­­­­Martin said.

It comes as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned there was “some evidence” the UK strain of Covid, which accounts for 60pc of cases here, may also be up to 30pc more deadly.

Although the data is “uncertain”, the UK’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance suggested that for a man in his 60s, the risk of death with the new variant is 13 in 1,000 rather than 10 in 1,000.

Mr Martin said new quarantining regulations would “be close to sealing off the country”, a major policy shift but he insisted essential travel would be permitted.

He said consideration had to be given to who would police the quarantine hotels and what concessions could be made for people who live in Ireland and were returning home from overseas.

He also said the Government would support a ban on all travel into the EU if it was introduced by Brussels.

Mr Martin said you “could feel the anxiety” among EU leaders about the dangers of new Covid-19 variants during a video conference on Thursday.

“It’s a race between the vaccination on the one hand and the new variant on the other which could wreak havoc with all of our best laid plans and maybe new variants of the UK variant on top of the South Africa,” the Taoiseach said.

However, he said he expected more than a million people in Ireland to be vaccinated by June, along with a significant easing of restriction. “It will be a different society, a bit more freer,” he said. “We will have greater choices to make in terms of what we open.”

Mr Martin said the Cabinet would decide on extending restrictions on Monday and it would be re-evaluated at the end of February.

Last night, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly’s spokesperson said he was examining “stronger measures” on incoming international travel.

“This includes the potential for new measures and also more robust enforcement of existing measures. This has become particularly relevant in the context of the emergence of the Covid-19 variants in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. An inter-departmental group is currently developing a range of options,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, the warning about the UK variant was part of a double blow in the fight against the virus as Oxford/AstraZeneca announced the volume of its vaccine delivery would be lower than expected due to reduced yields at its manufacturing site.

The vaccine – due to get approval next week – is seen as a game-changer here because it is easy to administer by GPs and pharmacies and it will be central in rolling out the jab to over-70s.

Ireland was hoping to get a delivery of 600,000 in the first quarter.

The worrying development on the deadlier impact of the variant comes as the death toll here from the disease this month rose to 582 yesterday as another 52 fatalities were announced.

The setback comes as hospitals around the country were reaching the limit of 350 intensive care beds as more patients become seriously ill with the virus.

There were 1,931 Covid-19 patients hospitalised yesterday while the numbers in intensive care rose again to 219.

Asked to comment on reports that the UK strain is more deadly, Prof Kingston Mills, Professor of Experimental Immunology in Trinity College Dublin, said he had yet to see the preliminary data but if it transpired to be correct he would not be entirely surprised.

“I am not too surprised because what we do know is that the reason the UK variant is more transmissable is because the viral load is higher

"If it is higher it would not be incompatible with it being more virulent. Most people have said up until now that it was not more virulent. It fits with what is happening.”

The number of new cases of the virus fell to 2,371 yesterday indicating the incidence is slowly dropping but the growing dominance of the UK variant will cause the spread to reduce at a slower pace and could mean much of the current Level 5 lockdown will have to be in place until mid-March.

Infectious disease consultant Prof Sam McConkey said he would agree with this approach if needed and said he would not put a calendar date on lifting lockdown.

Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland


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