The Government’s new strategy for living with Covid-19 will set out plans for a staggered return of construction and a slow return to schooling while maintaining a prohibition on indoor house visits and hospitality.
The new plan is in the early stages of being drafted and sources involved in the process say that while no dates will be explicitly set out for the reopening of society and economy, increased vaccinations should allow for progress in May or June.
Industry sources believe that the hospitality sector may only begin reopening on an outdoor basis from the May bank holiday onwards with a phased reopening for indoor settings as the summer months progress, depending on the level of virus in circulation.
Mass gatherings of more than 50 people are unlikely until a large swathe of the population have been vaccinated, with the Government cautiously optimistic about this being achieved in September.
The priority in the revised Living with Covid-19 plan will be slowly reopening schools alongside an incremental return in construction which prioritises the building of houses. While restrictions may be eased to allow people to meet outdoors, the ban on house visits is likely to be extended.
The plan will also see the extension of pandemic welfare supports and new commitments in relation to coronavirus antigen testing and greater levels of genomic sequencing.
The Cabinet had been expected to sign off on Tuesday on a new path for the Leaving Certificate but sources in the Department of Education say there is no certainty yet about this timeline.
Talks between the unions and the department took place on Sunday and will resume again on Monday.
There are also parallel talks ongoing about the reopening of schools generally. Government and union sources say March 1st is being examined as a potential date for reopening primary schools on a phased basis, subject to public-health advice.
At secondary level, the ambition is for a phased return from late February or early March, beginning with sixth-year students.
Meanwhile, GPs will begin taking delivery this morning of vaccines for people aged over 85, and vaccinations will start later today or tomorrow depending on arrival times.
Older age group
Some 2,700 vaccines are due to be delivered to GP practices on Monday among the 106 clinics that will administer mostly Pfizer jabs to this older age group in this wave of vaccinations. This will be followed by 3,500 on Tuesday, 2,300 on Wednesday, 3,500 on Thursday and 2,200 on Friday.
Just one of 106 practices will receive Moderna vaccines.
Denis McCauley, chairman of the GP committee of the Irish Medical Organisation, said he expected the sixth and eighth weeks of the rollout to the over-70s to be busiest as doctors would have to administer second doses to the over-80s and first doses to the larger over-70s group.
“We don’t foresee it being a problem but we will have to see,” he said.
This week marks the first time that vaccines have been administered outside a hospital or nursing-home setting.
He expected doctors to have reserve lists of below-85s recipients to ensure that no vaccines will be wasted given the time constraints on administering doses once they are prepared.
“There are many willing reserve-list occupants who are very keen to get it,” he said.
Some doctors have criticised the decision not to permit vaccinations in local halls or churches.
Monaghan GP Illona Duffy said she had planned to use a local church which would have allowed her practice to vaccinate at least 60 people an hour whereas they could only do 14 in the surgery.
Mr McCauley said: “It is a vulnerable group of people and a fragile vaccine. It is better that it is done in a clinical setting.”
As the public vaccinations begin, there is some concern among health officials about a “bottoming out” of case numbers over the past week. The five-day average of daily cases has increased in recent days, while the seven-day incidence is flat.
While some of the slowing down in progress is due to the resumption of testing of contacts late last month, officials are worried about a rise in the average number of contacts and in the proportion of positive tests, as well as the rising proportion of cases in Dublin, which now has the third highest county incidence in the State.