Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said he wants to set March 31st as a “deadline to end almost all legal restrictions”, and has a “strong degree of confidence” that measures can be eased quickly in the coming weeks.
Speaking to his parliamentary party colleagues in Fine Gael this evening, Mr Varadkar said that vaccination and lessened severity associated with the currently-dominant Omicron variant means that hospitalisations, intensive care numbers and deaths have not increased to the same extent as in previous waves.
The meeting heard that gives a “strong degree of confidence that we can ease restrictions quickly over the next few weeks”.
He said that Ireland has performed well by European and world standards on almost every measure, when it comes to controlling the pandemic. Against that had to be balanced the impact of restrictions, especially for younger and single people.
Saying that he wishes to set March 31st as a deadline for the relaxation of “almost all legal restrictions”, he nonetheless cautioned that no promises can be made, and that the option remained to extend measures for another three months to the end of June.
The risk of a new severe variant of concern later in the year also means the State should be prepared for a another round of vaccination, and to resume test and trace programmes while investing in improved air quality and hospital capacity.
The Cabinet may meet as early as Friday to approve the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, which is likely to begin next week.
While no meeting has been formally scheduled yet, it is understood that arrangements will be put in place quickly if advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) on Thursday is favourable to a quick reopening.
The Cabinet holds its regular weekly meeting tomorrow, while Nphet is scheduled to meet on Thursday to consider the latest modelling, the situation in hospitals and the prospects for reopening.
If the Nphet advice is favourable towards reopening, the Cabinet could decide on Friday to begin lifting restrictions in the middle of next week, with an announcement to that effect by Taoiseach Micheál Martin following the meeting on Friday evening.
It is expected that the lifting of restrictions could take place on a phased basis, with hospitality opening hours extended from next week, and capacity for cultural and sporting events expanded from the beginning of February.
There is a growing push in Government to bring forward reopening plans from early February to next week if conditions continue to improve. Recent days have seen daily case numbers collapse and the situation in hospitals remains manageable, though busy. Both Mr Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar have made optimistic noises about reopening in recent days.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said he hopes for the quickest return to normal life possible, and that he thinks some measures will be lifted before the end of the month
Speaking to RTÉ’s News at One programme, Mr Donnelly also said it is his hope that emergency powers relating to Covid-19 will not be renewed when the legislation enabling them lapses at the end of March.
“My view is we introduced emergency powers to deal with this, we introduced very difficult measures to deal with this, and they were necessary and are necessary where the public health rationale to keep people safe is there.
“What I want to see and what we all want to see is the quickest possible return to normal life and the lifting of all the restrictions where possible, but critically in a safe and balanced way so we don’t squander the very hard fought gains the country now has.”
While Mr Donnelly wouldn’t be drawn on what specific measures may lapse first, and said that steps would be taken informed by public health advice, he nonetheless believed restrictions could be relaxed before the end of the month.
“What people need is certainty and that’s what we’ll have in the coming days,” and that it was a question of what was the “best and safest way” to do so.
Mr Donnelly said the intention was to invest and plan for the future of the pandemic, even as restrictions are loosened.
“At the same time, what we’re doing is the medium term work to make sure we have the national defences in place to make sure that if another variant of concern arrives we can respond quickly.”
Digital Covid Cert
Elsewhere, Minister of State Ossian Smyth has said his hope is that the obligation to produce a Covid-19 cert domestically will expire at the end of March. While he says they will be needed for international travel, “domestically there’s no long term plan to keep them forever. They’re part of the restrictions that are due to expire on 31 March,” he said.
“I don’t want them to go beyond that.”
Expressing the view that there were non-financial costs to public health restrictions, borne of keeping people apart and regulating social contact, Mr Smyth said: “Putting in restrictions and keeping restrictions is not just something we can keep doing, it’s building up and I think there’s a limit to how much people can take.
“We’ll listen to the advice from public health experts on [using vaccine certs] and see what they say but we’re at a point where nearly everybody is vaccinated, [and] the second highest rate of Covid boosters in Europe,” he said.
There were 979 Covid-19 patients in hospital on Tuesday morning, down from 1,006 the previous day.
However, ICU numbers had increased on Monday to 97, the highest level since December 23rd last.
The positivity rate dropped to 45.2 per cent on Monday, down from highs of more than 50 per cent a week ago, although changes to testing rules in the interim make direct comparisons difficult.
On Monday, an additional 9,970 booster vaccines against Covid-19 were administered, giving a total of 2,472,236 booster doses.
HSE chief executive Paul Reid said the booster vaccination programme had given a “window of opportunity” against the Omicron variant of the virus.
“This gave added protection to the vulnerable [and] to all of us to alleviate the effect,” he posted on Twitter. “But it’s still key that everyone comes forward for their boosters. We want to see this through.”
A further six people who previously tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland have died, the North’s Department of Health said on Tuesday.
Another 4,081 confirmed cases of the virus were also recorded in the North in its latest 24-hour reporting period. On Tuesday morning, there were 412 Covid-positive patients in the North’s hospitals, with 28 of them in intensive care. Additional reporting: PA