The Government has signed off on the details of a plan to allow indoor hospitality reopen with the expectation this will happen later this month.
Legislation to underpin the move - the Health Amendment (2) Bill 2021 - was approved by Cabinet on Monday evening. It will enable the reopening of pubs, cafes, restaurants and other licensed premises “safely, sustainably and in line with public health advice”, said the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.
Speaking after the Cabinet meeting, he said the legislation would come before the Dáil, possibly as early as tomorrow (Tuesday) and it was anticipated it would come into force some day next week but no later than Monday July 26th.
He said the plan was to allow those under age 18 to attend indoor hospitality with their parent or guardian even though they were not vaccinated which meant social distancing rules would continue to apply indoors as they did last summer.
Those who are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 in the past six months will have to show proof of this to access indoor hospitality.
The Government’s new Digital Covid Certificates (DCC), which Ireland and other EU countries are implementing, can be used by members of the public as evidence of being fully vaccinated, or other medical documentation, which will be set out in guidelines in the coming days.
For visitors to Ireland from outside the EU, including the US, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a nationally certified equivalent can be used for the purposes of verifying vaccination or immunity status.
Mr Varadkar said this was not the ideal way to reopen indoor hospitality but the alternative was to wait until September when all adults are vaccinated and “even then it may not be possible to reopen because at that stage all teenagers may not be vaccinated, we’ll be concentrating on getting the schools and colleges open and open successfully and we’ll be heading into the winter”.
He said there was provision in the Bill to use this system too for bingo halls and bowling and other indoor settings currently closed “down the line”.
An exemption will apply to unvaccinated staff working in these premises, Mr Varadkar said. “They will of course be able to get a drink or have a meal after or before work in the place in which they work”.
There is also a provision in the legislation to extend access to indoor hospitality to people who have been tested either by PCR or antigen testing but “there is more work to be done before we can do that”, the Tánaiste said.
Detailed operational guidelines for reopening will be published by Fáilte Ireland in coming days.
People who are caught trying to use fake passes to access indoor hospitality services face a fine of up to €2,000. The penalty is included in the proposed legislation.
The law is to initially be in place for three months. However, it can be extended beyond this depending on the situation with the spread of Covid-19 at the time.
With the Dáil's summer recess due to start at the end of the week Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has written to the Oireachtas Health Committee seeking a waiver from the requirement for pre-legislative scrutiny.
He tells committee chairman, Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe, that he is seeking Government approval for the introduction of the Health (Amendment) (No 2) Bill 2021 to the Houses of the Oireachtas.
This Bill will provide for access to indoor premises for persons who have a high degree of immunity from Covid-19 - either through vaccination or recovery from the virus.
He says indoor access to these premises will not be possible during the summer unless legislation is enacted prior to the recess.
Mr Donnelly also says: “Recognising that the provisions of the Bill necessarily limit access to those with immunity, it will operate for no longer than necessary.
“Its initial duration is for three months, with a provision that enables extension by resolution of the Oireachtas should the behaviour of the virus require it at that time.”
If the Bill is enacted and in place for some time next week this means the measures will be in place until at least October.
Mr Donnelly asks for a waiver from pre-legislative scrutiny “given the urgency of this legislation”.
The Government also agreed to give further consideration to the use of PCR and rapid antigen testing in further phases of lifting of restrictions. The Government’s new expert advisory group on rapid testing, chaired by Professor Mary Horgan will be asked to provide appropriate guidance.
The Government expects to issue up to 25,000 Covid-19 digital green certs for travel each day from the middle of this week after an initial block of nearly 2 million is approved for those already vaccinated.
Minister of State Ossian Smyth said that around 1 million people will receive the pass over email in the days ahead, along with roughly 900,000 people receiving it in the post. With around 25,000 people receiving their second vaccination daily, he said the same number of new certificates will also issue as people become eligible.
The certs will enable quarantine-free travel between European Union countries, but only under certain circumstances. Those who have been vaccinated are automatically eligible, as are those who have recovered from a recent Covid infection.
People who have a clear PCR test from an authorised operator within the previous 72 hours can also obtain the cert, or a clear antigen test taken within 48 hours. Both must be done by a suitably qualified professional, with companies invited to apply for clearance to operate the system and issue certificates.
The certs consist of a QR code, similar to a barcode, which can be scanned at the airport and compared to someone’s identification - such as a passport.
Mr Smyth said the system will “make short trips feasible where they weren’t before.” There will also be an acceptance of evidence or proof from some non-EU jurisdictions including the US and the UK. “If you have a vaccine certificate from the US or the UK, you won’t have a digital covid cert but if you can show it you can come here without isolating,” he said.
However, Mr Smyth said people should check the arrival requirements on the EU commission Reopen.europa.eu website before departure, as different countries may have different definitions and rules around vaccination.
The certificates are to be distributed here by the Revenue Commissioners.
‘Let it rip’
Earlier Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he does not accept the “let it rip” approach to easing Covid-19 restrictions used by the UK and that the reopening of indoor hospitality in Ireland will be done with “caution”.
There is to be a one hour and 45 minute time limit on customers being inside restaurants and pubs. At a press conference on Monday, Mr Martin was asked about the reason for this time limit if people are fully vaccinated as well as when antigen tests could be deployed as a means of allowing young people who haven’t been vaccinated access to indoor hospitality.
Mr Martin did not offer a date for when negative tests would be used for this purpose.
He said the Government is going to implement advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) for setting up a system to prove a person has been vaccinated in the initial phase of reopening.
Nphet sought the measures due to the threat posed by the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus.
Mr Martin said the potential use of testing for the hospitality sector will be evaluated during the first phase of reopening.
He said the reason for the time limit for customers is “caution”.
On young people being unable to access indoor hospitality on their own or in groups because they have yet to be vaccinated, Mr Martin said: “Fundamentally, it’s about protecting people.
“We don’t want people getting Covid.”
He said he does not accept the UK’s “let it rip” approach that says “we have all of the vulnerable vaccinated now let’s allow people get Covid”.
Mr Martin said Covid-19 can be a “very nasty virus” that can do a lot of damage to young people as well.
“And I certainly don’t want to be presiding over something that just sort of said it’s okay if young people get Covid.
“It’s not actually. Some will do fine and won’t have any repercussions but 10 per cent of all cases are Long Covid.”
Mr Martin added: “There is an end in sight here. It’s within our grasp, no question about that. Steady wins the battle, in my view.”
Vaccines from Romania
Meanwhile, he said he could not confirm when one million Covid-19 vaccine doses will be delivered from Romania.
It emerged at the start of the month a deal was agreed in principle for Ireland to buy 700,000 Pfizer and 300,000 Moderna vaccines from Romania after it became apparent there was going to be a low take up by Romanians of the vaccines.
It was reported at the weekend that the deal is not yet finalised with issues under discussion including the expiration dates of available vaccines and the information on doses not being in English.
The Government is also in discussions with other EU Member States on the possibility of buying vaccines.
Speaking at a press conference Mr Martin said there was a “good meeting” last week between the Irish and Romanian health departments.
“Those discussions are continuing and progress has been made in relation to it.”
He said: “We’ve also had discussions with other Member States and again those discussions are ongoing in respect of arranging vaccines but they have not come to a conclusion yet.”
Asked when it is expected that the vaccines from Romania will be delivered he said: “I haven’t the timeline yet on that”.
Separately the Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys has defended the decision to have only random checks at border control for people arriving into the country with an EU digital Covid cert.
She said random checks were considered appropriate and the measures were an attempt to streamline the system.
“All EU travellers will have the same checks, as I’ve said we have increased resources, that’s the approach we’re taking, we consider that to be appropriate. We consider that to be safe,” she told RTÉ’s News at One.
The Minister explained the Covid cert would also be used to access indoor hospitality.
“It is envisaged that the pub and restaurant would check compliance with the new hospitality pass to allow indoor access to their premises, there will be a certificate with a QR code that can be scanned or checked, the overwhelming majority of people have cooperated with measures which have been put in place throughout the pandemic and we expect that to continue,” she said.
The plan to reopen the indoor hospitality sector was based on advice from Nphet, she said and the challenge for the Government was to engage with the sector and come up with workable solutions and allow indoor dining to resume, the alternative would be to remain closed until September.
“I don’t think anybody wants that. We have over two million people fully vaccinated if we can let those people go inside and support businesses we have to find a way to do it.”
When asked if the checking of the Covid cert in hospitality would be random as at the airport, the Minister responded: “The number of people going into a restaurant will be somewhat less than the number of people who are going to be coming through Dublin airport when international travel has been reopened. I think we need to get this into perspective.”