No ‘large reopening of society’ at start of March, Taoiseach says

Junior to second primary school classes set to return first

Taoiseach Micheál Martin TD speaking to the media outside Meath Primary Care Centre in Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney / Collins Photos Dublin.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin TD speaking to the media outside Meath Primary Care Centre in Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney / Collins Photos Dublin.

 

There will be no “large reopening of society” at the start of March, the Taoiseach has said.

Speaking in Dublin on Friday, Micheál Martin said that there will also be “no-large scale reopening of construction”, a reversal of previous indications from Goverment that construction would be allowed to reopen next month, in line with comments made by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar earlier on Friday.

He said that schools remain the first priority, along with childcare. After a day in which the Government faced charges of mixed messaging, he claimed that he had been “very consistent for the last number of weeks”, but also that “nothing is set in stone” on how long restrictions would last.

On Thursday, Mr Martin said in an interview that he anticipated significant restrictions would be in place until the end of April.

He said he didn’t accept that the Government’s message has been confused. “There’s no large reopening of society occurring, we know that and that’s been well flagged, we’re looking at schools, in terms of the beginning of March, and child care”.

Asked how many children would have to wait until after the Easter holidays before resuming school, he said: “What we’re looking at in terms of primary school is junior infants, the early years, up to junior, senior, first and second class, and Leaving Certs”.

He said the new B117 variant, which now accounts for 90 per cent of new cases, is another variable to account for during reopening. The cabinet subcommittee on Covid is due to meet to discuss the reopening, and the revisions to the Living with Covid plan, at the beginning of next week, before a full cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

“We will review, of course, we’re going to review in four weeks time at the end of March, beginnning of April,” he said. He said the “rollout of the vaccination does give us hope into the medium term ahead but it also makes it a sensible thing to do, and be cautious and to be conservative.”

He said that this week, close to 80,000 people will be vaccinated, rising to 110,000 people next week. That will rise to around 250,000 during the second quarter of the year, he said. “That seems a settled figure for us in terms of the range of vaccines that are scheduled to come in during that particular period so it’s good news.”

First four classes

Earlier Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman said the first four classes in primary schools are likely return on March 1st, although the majority of secondary school students will stay home until after Easter.

There will be no official confirmation of plans issued until next week but primary school students in classes third to sixth are also expected to home-school for a further two weeks.

At second level the focus is firmly on the return of sixth year students as a priority.

In an interview on RTÉ radio this morning, Mr O’Gorman appeared to confirm details of the highly anticipated phased reopening of schools , ahead of Cabinet approval on Tuesday.

“It is my understanding that the focus is on primary school children and Leaving Cert classes and we will see how those four weeks across March have impacted,” he said.

“That will take us up until the Easter break and at that stage a decision will be taken in relation to secondary school classes outside of Leaving Cert classes.

“As things currently stand, I think the majority of secondary school children will probably be returning to education following the Easter holidays.”

He said the Government will engage with the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to set out clear “phasings” for the reopening.

Mr O’Gorman’s remarks offer a glimmer of hope to families heading into the weekend with news that any broader return to normality continues to be a distant prospect.

Following a meeting of the Cabinet Covid-19 sub-committee on Thursday, sources indicated that Level 5 restrictions would likely continue until April with strict measures until early May.

A reflection of plateauing case numbers, the judicious approach is only likely to exclude schools whose closure has been one of the more testing measures introduced by Government to get a handle on the post-Christmas surge.

‘Very cautious’

In its presentation to the sub-committee, Nphet was said to be “very, very cautious” about what might be achievable in terms of restrictions easing; the phased reopening of schools “about the limit of what they can support”, a source said.

On Friday, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe confirmed that outlook, saying the country’s exit from Level 5 would be gradual and that the country needed to be on its guard; “we saw what happened in January”.

At a briefing on Thursday, deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn also cautioned people not to see the return of schools as any signal mobility or inter-household mingling would be acceptable.

However, in somewhat mixed signals ahead of the updated strategy, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly denied that “everything is off the table” with regard to the reopening of the economy over the coming weeks.

“But I think it is important to look at what has happened when we have come out of more severe restrictions in the past,” he told Newstalk Radio on Friday.

“We know that the UK variant is much more contagious and unfortunately, what we are also finding out now, based on research from the UK, which is relatively new information, is that it looks like the UK variant is also more severe both in terms of hospitalisation and fatality.”

With regard to staycations, the reality was that nobody knew if they would be possible this summer, he said.

With Government officials continuing to sketch out the details of a refreshed Living with Covid-19 plan for next week, it is not expected to set down any specific dates for sections of society to reopen.

Tanaiste Leo Varadkar said it has been well known the country is facing tough restrictions into April.

“We are going in the right direction,” he told RTÉ radio’s News at One on Friday, but the number of Covid cases is still “very high”.

The advice from Nphet on Thursday was that schools and childcare could reopen on a phased basis during the month of March “and through the Easter break”, he said, but to do anything else such as reopening the construction sector or allowing more outdoor activities was too risky at this time.

The Tánaiste denied there were mixed communications coming for the Government.

News Digests

Stay on top of the latest newsSIGN UP HERE