Covid-19: Government expects Nphet to recommend mask wearing be voluntary

Teaching unions want cautious approach to easing of mitigation measures in schools

The Government expects that most mask-wearing, including in schools, will become voluntary after the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) meets on Thursday to review the Irish Covid-19 situation.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin last night signalled the move as he told the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party about a meeting with chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan. Mr Martin is said to have delivered an optimistic assessment of the current Covid-19 situation.

He said there would need to be a continued focus on vaccination as almost 800,000 people who had the disease recently are set to become eligible for booster shots next month.

Hospital Report

Dr Holohan is expected to write to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly with his assessment following Nphet’s first meeting since January.


Nphet is expected to say the progress of Covid-19 since then has been in line with projections and that the harm caused by the disease has further reduced. While the number of daily infections remains high compared to previous waves, officials are likely to note the declining numbers needing hospital and intensive care treatment.

A further 108 deaths related to Covid-19 were reported in the last week, bringing the total to 6,399 since the start of the pandemic. An additional 5,268 PCR-test confirmed cases were reported yesterday, with 4,613 positive antigen tests registered on the HSE’s online portal.

Some 631 patients were being treated in hospital for Covid-19 on Wednesday, down four in 24 hours, including 62 people in intensive care units, a decrease of one.

Public transport

While the remaining restrictions are not due to expire until the end of this month, there is optimism in Government that Nphet may recommend the end of mandatory mask wearing in most environments, though they may still be required in healthcare settings and on public transport.

Senior Government sources said they expected the requirement to wear masks in schools could be ended from next week, but that they would await Nphet’s advice.

The Government is likely to recommend that people continue to wear masks in situations where they perceive a risk of Covid-19 infection. Mr Martin has said that he would favour moving to a voluntary regime as the pandemic recedes. However, there is some concern at the relatively low rate of take-up of the vaccine among five to 11 year-olds, which is at 28 per cent.

Teaching unions and school managers say they would prefer a gradual relaxation of the Covid-19 rules.

Minister for Education Norma Foley yesterday said public health advice had served schools well during the pandemic and that whatever changes are recommended would be implemented in the education system. She said she anticipated that advice around hand hygiene, the need for symptomatic staff or pupils to stay at home and enhanced cleaning would likely remain.


Staff representatives say the volume of Covid-19 in schools remains a challenge and is resulting in high levels of pupil and teacher absences.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) called for a “pragmatic and cautious” approach to any changes to school mitigation measures.The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said a sudden relaxation could disrupt preparations for the Junior Cycle and Leaving Cert exams.

“If we stop everything all of a sudden, there is a risk that we’ll have lots of students and teachers missing,” said TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie.

The two main school principals’ representative groups said they would be guided by whatever public health measures are announced. Some individual principals said they looked forward to a full resumption of school activities such as concerts, plays, choirs and in-person parent-teacher meetings.

Meanwhile, all children aged five to 11 in Northern Ireland are to be offered Covid-19 vaccines following advice from the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. They will be offered two paediatric doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, with an interval of at least 12 weeks between them.

Five further deaths of people who previously tested positive for Covid-19 were reported in the North on Wednesday, along with another 2,889 cases. There were 474 Covid-19 patients in hospitals including 12 in intensive care.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times