An end to compulsory mask-wearing in almost all settings will come into effect on February 28th as the Government will accept all public health advice on the matter in full, the Taoiseach has confirmed.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) on Thursday advised an end to compulsory mask-wearing in almost all settings.
“That was the advice – as and from the 28th of February,” the Taoiseach told The Irish Times.
From that date almost all mandatory restrictions introduced to reduce the spread of Covid-19 will be dropped, with mask-wearing in shops, public transport and schools a matter of choice from then on. They will only remain mandatory in medical settings.
The Taoiseach said the Government was following advice from Nphet and the chief medical officer Tony Holohan set out in a letter “in its entirety”, including the disbanding of Nphet itself.
“I have spoken to the party leaders, [the Government] is accepting the advice of Nphet in its entirety in the letter,” the Taoiseach said.
“We are moving from the emergency phase of the pandemic into a new transitionary phase,” he said.
“The public health rationale no longer applies in terms of retaining regulations around the mandatory wearing of masks.
“People may feel more comfortable wearing masks, but they won’t be mandatory.”
Mr Martin said public health advice may be needed going forward, as there was a risk of new Covid-19 variants emerging, but the role of Nphet is no longer required.
“I’m going to pay tribute to Nphet, thank all the members of Nphet for the work that they have done, many in a voluntary capacity over and above their normal duties,” the Taoiseach said.
“Thank the chief medical officer for the work that he has been doing in very difficult circumstances over a much longer period than people might have anticipated when the pandemic first started.”
‘Pandemic isn’t over’
Elsewhere Tanaiste Leo Varadkar said Nphet, will not be immediately disbanded, and he warned despite the loosening of Covid-19 restrictions “the pandemic isn’t over”.
Speaking to reporters in Tipperary, Mr Varadkar said : “Nphet isn’t being stood down just yet, it will fade away, but it’s also a body that can be reconstituted”.
The Tanaiste said he “didn’t always agree” with Nphet’s advice on the pandemic, but he thanked it for “providing us with very good advice and guidance over the past two years”.
“It’s important to say the pandemic isn’t over, and the (virus’s) positivity rate is still very high; I’m hearing of people I know everyday who are still testing positive with Covid-19.”
Mr Varadkar said PCR testing will be focused predominantly to “senior citizens and medically vulnerable people”.
However, he said despite most of the population building up “a very high level of immunity, the one thing we can’t rule out, unfortunately, is the possibility of a return of the virus in a new form”.
“There will be new variants, but there is always the risk of a new variant that has significant vaccine escape; immunity from the vaccines and infection will wane; and of course there will be another winter.”
“So, we have to be on guard, and we have to be ready for a future spike or a future sting in the tail, and we are going to make preparations for exactly that.”
The Fine Gael leader also predicted it will become the norm for people to opt to wear face-masks in specific situations, such as during winter months, in crowded areas, on public transport, which he said is the case in “Asian countries”.
It comes as the latest Covid data released by Nphet showed another 4,821 PCR-confirmed cases of Covid-19 had been reported in the State, while 3,772 more people had registered a positive antigen test through the HSE portal.
As of 8am on Friday, 591 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised, of whom 57 were in ICU.
Meanwhile, the president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, Prof Mary Horgan, who is also a member of Nphet, has said that having a targeted approach to testing and tracing is the way forward.
“I think having a more targeted approach is the way forward. It’s more sustainable, but also the ability to turn on testing widely again if that is required,” she told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland on Friday.
“We certainly are at a different phase of the pandemic than we were this time last year, indeed two years ago, it really is a good news day.”
Prof Horgan said that “a huge amount of infrastructure and financial support” had been put into testing and tracing, and there remained the ability to upscale and downscale as necessary.
The recommendation was that it would be targeted to those who are more vulnerable, people who were more likely to end up in hospital or get seriously ill from the infection, she explained.
Prof Horgan added that a recommendation that people isolate if they have symptoms until the symptoms are gone remained. “The hope is that they will. If you look at what the people of Ireland have done over the past two years it’s been so good – that’s why we are where we are today and people do have an understanding of what the symptoms are, what they need to do so that they protect not only themselves, but those that they interact with in their families, in their communities and so on.”
The removal of mandatory mask recommendations did not mean that people should not wear them if they felt comfortable doing so, she said.
“We are adaptable, it will take a while for many people to not wear masks fully, their use in certain situations, particularly crowded situations, will be recommended. It’s the mandatory nature that’s gone.”
Vulnerable people have not been abandoned, she said. “As a country we need to support those that feel they are vulnerable, we have done that with continuing testing, also they have been vaccinated. Four doses really reduces risk of hospitalisation and death by 90 per cent, it’s up to us not in vulnerable groups to support those in vulnerable groups to getting back to living life to the full.”
Prof Horgan said that the mood at Thursday’s meeting of Nphet had been “very upbeat” and that in its two years “we felt we had achieved a lot”.
The Covid adviser to the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP), Dr Mary Favier, said the decision to disband Nphet lies with the Minister for Health as the country “transitions out of a pandemic scenario”.
Nphet had achieved its goals, she told RTÉ radio’s Today show. It was important that the expertise garnered during the pandemic be maintained and there was “a lot of background work” going on to ensure that the country would be prepared the next time there was a pandemic.
On the issue of mandatory mask-wearing being eased, Dr Favier said there was a risk with all messages that they could be misinterpreted. Mask-wearing was a very effective means of reducing Covid numbers and she anticipated that many people would continue to wear masks.
Dr Favier said she would continue to wear a mask herself in healthcare settings and in situations which were congested. That will be the same for many people, she said, as there were many who would still be anxious.
That anxiety was completely understandable, she said. Many had to “reframe their lives” to deal with the risk and would continue to wear masks.