The Government has delayed the next reopening phase from the Covid-19 lockdown, postponing the reopening of remaining pubs and resumption of larger gatherings of people amid concerns over rising coronavirus infections.
Plans to allow pubs that do not serve food and nightclubs to recommence business from July 20th has been postponed until August 10th after the State’s health officials raised concerns about an increase in Covid-19 infections as restrictions have been relaxed.
Proposals to permit larger gatherings of 100 people indoors, up from 50, and 500 people outdoors, up from 200, will also not proceed as earlier planned.
And, in a further precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the disease, the Government has extended the mandatory wearing of face coverings to shops, shopping centres and retail workers where there is no protective screen or a two-metre distance between them and their customers.
The rise in the number of infections from “unrestricted house parties” has led the Government to recommend social visits to other people’s homes be limited to 10 visitors from no more than four households.
The advice against unnecessary travel overseas has been extended but the Government still plans to publish a “green list” of countries with similar levels of infection rates that people can travel to, though it is maintaining advice against non-essential foreign travel.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Government was not proceeding with the fourth reopening phase as the reproduction number of the virus, a key metric tracked to assess the rate of infection, had risen above one, meaning it was spreading in the community.
Mr Martin said the virus had not changed and “remains as indiscriminate in its cruelty as it has since it arrived, and it remains as relentless as ever in its effort to find new hosts”.
Getting the “R number” back below one would give the Government the best possible chance to reopen schools in late August and to resume essential healthcare, he said.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) was “worried about the trajectory” of the virus, Mr Martin said, and if it continued to spread at the current rate, it could jeopardise plans to reopen schools.
The Taoiseach also said there needed to be “better follow-up” to ensure visitors arriving into the country were complying with the 14-day self-isolating period. He promised an increased presence of compliance staff and communications at ports and airports and more extensive tracing.
The State's acting chief medical officer, Dr Ronan Glynn, said the 14-day incidence rate of the disease had risen from a low of 2.5 cases per 100,000 people to 3.9 cases per 100,000 on Wednesday.
“This virus is extremely infectious. It wants to spread but it wants people to come in contact with each other to do so,” he said.
Dr Glynn said the R number was between 1.2 and 1.8, which means that for every five infected people, the disease will spread to between six and nine other people. He said there had been large clusters linked to private homes, in some cases infecting 40-50 people.
The pause in lifting of restrictions marks the first time public officials have delayed reopening since the country first started to emerge from lockdown in May.
The NPHET reported another two coronavirus-related deaths and 14 new confirmed cases, bringing to 145 cases over the past seven days. And the number of clusters – defined as two cases or more – in private homes increased by 96 in the week to last Sunday, according to figures from the State’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
Representatives of the pub trade reacted angrily to the Government’s decision describing the delay in the reopening of about 3,500 pubs as a “hammer blow” to the industry.
Padraig Cribben, chief executive of the Vintners' Federation of Ireland, said rural family-run pubs would bear the brunt of the decision. And Donall O'Keeffe, chief executive of the Licensed Vintners Association, said it was a "crushing blow" for pubs which will be unable to trade for 40 per cent of the year.