Varadkar to say 'we will emerge from dark time' but it's too soon to lift lockdown
Workplaces will be closed down for breaches of social distancing under plans being considered by the Government to reopen the economy.
With the Taoiseach set to unveil the country’s Covid-19 exit strategy, it has emerged the State will police businesses to ensure they are not putting customers or employees at risk of infection.
The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) will be given new powers to inspect and shut down workplaces if they do not comply with guidelines to be published soon for reopening businesses after the nationwide lockdown.
Business Minister Heather Humphreys is expected to tell the watchdog recently enacted emergency legislation can be used to close down businesses on public health grounds.
It comes as Leo Varadkar is today expected to announce a two-week extension of the national lockdown. The Taoiseach will ask for more time to fight the virus.
A source said Mr Varadkar will tell the public we need to open the country in “a slow, staged way” to avoid a second wave of Covid-19.
He will add that the Government is “planning now, so that we can all emerge safely and soon from this dark period”.
The Government’s roadmap for exiting the lockdown is not expected to start for another two weeks, most likely in the week beginning May 18. There were doubts last night whether the Taoiseach will announce any relaxing on cocooning regulations for over-70s.
Chief medical officer Tony Holohan, who will decide when the lockdown ends, yesterday came under pressure from Cabinet ministers to ease the rules for older people.
During a teleconference with Dr Holohan, ministers insisted older people should be allowed leave their homes when the current lockdown period ends next week.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring, Business Minister Heather Humphreys, Defence Minister Paul Kehoe, Transport Minister Shane Ross and Disability Minister Finian McGrath all raised the plight of people asked to cocoon.
Dr Holohan said he was aware social distancing rules were difficult for older people but said they were put in place for their best interests.
Ministers who attended the meeting said the chief medical officer gave no indication he would be lifting restrictions for older people when the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) makes a recommendation to Government.
One minister said the briefing was "very grim" while another said Dr Holohan "did not give us much hope".
It is understood there are concerns that if older people are allowed to leave their homes, they will congregate in the same places.
One minister said Dr Holohan seemed to suggest the next phase of lockdown could even be for another three weeks rather than the expected two-week extension.
Mr McGrath said there were contradictions in over-70s being asked to cocoon while people are working in closed factory settings.
At a HSE briefing, Dr Holohan said he had a "good exchange" with ministers and said there was no pressure placed on him that was in "any way inappropriate".
Meanwhile, it has emerged frontline health workers will have childcare provided in their homes in the first phase of government plans to ease the restrictions caused by Covid-19.
It is understood the proposal by Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone's department is Nphet's preferred option to protect families and workers.
Sources said feedback from Nphet indicated it was most likely to back a plan based on care for single family units rather than care provided at crèches or facilities where families could mix and the virus spread more easily.
They said it had been sent to Nphet for approval.
The plan means the reopening of the childcare sector would be done in three key phases as the economy is rebooted.
The first step will be providing childcare for essential health workers initially on what is described as an "in-reach" or "outreach" model in their homes.
In the second phase, the childcare scheme would be extended to include essential workers in other sectors, and crèches would reopen at a reduced capacity in the third stage.
Speaking in the Dáil yesterday, Mr Varadkar said five criteria would have to be considered before restrictions could be lifted and they are: the progress of the disease; healthcare capacity and resilience; testing and contact tracing capacity; the ability to shield and care for at-risk groups; and the risk of secondary morbidity and mortality due to the restrictions themselves.
Today, Mr Varadkar will thank healthcare workers for all their tireless efforts during the crisis and say we "cannot allow their good work to be for nothing".
He will say "people who are not working, whose businesses are closed, older people confined to their home, will see things improving over time".
He is also expected to say: "The virus is still active in the community with more than 300 new cases diagnosed yesterday and over 100 people in ICU. We need more time for it to fizzle out so that it's too weak to make a comeback."
Nphet will make its recommendation on the lockdown roadmap today and it will be then be debated by the Cabinet before the Taoiseach makes a public announcement on the plan.
Central to this will be new Health and Safety Authority (HSA) guidelines for employers and employees returning to work. The draft guidelines cover areas such as hand and respiratory hygiene, physical distancing, PPE and the role of the worker.
The HSA will help businesses comply with the new rules but it will also have the power to issue prohibition and improvement notices to force employers to stop specific practices or take certain actions.
However, if a business doesn't co-operate and comply with the public health guidelines, the HSA will be able order it to shut down the workplace.
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