Covid-19: Limited easing of restrictions proposed as pressure grows to reopen economy

Health officials to discuss reopening of playgrounds and allowing summer camps

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told the Dáil that he is confident that phase two of the easing of the Covid-19 restrictions will go ahead as planned on Monday, June 8th. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

Public health officials are set to give the go-ahead on Thursday for a further easing of restrictions designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19, with only minor changes to the Government’s original roadmap.

Resuming some special education classes, allowing playgrounds to open earlier and permitting some summer camps to go ahead are among the measures being discussed.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan indicated a phasing of further changes is being contemplated, especially for those affecting children.

“There may well be measures that take a lead-in time and planning. It doesn’t necessarily mean everything will start on the same date.”

Officials will discuss ways of ramping up testing for the disease, which is currently running at about one-fifth of capacity. Measures to protect staff against infection are also under consideration, with figures showing almost one-third of cases occur among healthcare workers.

Budget deficit

With the Department of Finance on Wednesday revealing a budget deficit of more than €6 billion for May, pressure is increasing on the Government to open up the economy faster than is planned in the five-phase roadmap.

However, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), while likely to recommend phase two of the roadmap goes ahead on June 8th, is not expected to favour speeding up the plan, due to the continuing threat posed by new cases.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also downplayed expectations of an imminent acceleration of the Government’s roadmap to lift coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Varadkar, in an email to Fine Gael members, said he was “confident” the country could progress to the second phase of the plan next Monday.

The Cabinet is expected to make such a decision on Friday on the recommendation of NPHET.

“We are now nearing the end of Phase One of our plan to re-open business and society,” the Taoiseach said.

“Cabinet will meet on Friday to decide whether it is safe to move to Phase Two. I am confident that it will be. As I have always said, our plan to re-open the country can be accelerated if it safe to do so.

“But, I want to be confident that it is safe before making that move. I am concerned that many are calling for us to speed up before we even know for sure what impact the Phase One lifting of restrictions has had on the spread of the disease. I think it is better to adopt this slow and steady approach than to go too fast and risk falling backwards.”

The future of the €350 Covid unemployment payment is also expected to be decided by the Government this week. Sources said the payment could be reduced for part time workers and a closing date for new applications to the scheme may be announced.

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said running “these kinds of deficits are really important for our economy and our society at this point”, and he stressed the deficit would in “large part be addressed by the economic recovery”.

Mr Donohoe added the better-than-expected figures contained “some important signals” but might not offer a reliable indication of future months.

Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty said the figures were “way ahead of what the Government was expecting at this point in time”, and argued that there was now scope to significantly stimulate the economy.

Ireland was “way behind what other jurisdictions are doing right throughout Europe”, Mr Doherty said.

Spending

The exchequer figures showed spending by Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which operates the Government’s two pandemic unemployment assistance programmes, was 67 per cent more than expected, at €7.4 billion. But there was a marked decline in tax revenue with fewer people working and less consumer spending.

A further three deaths of people diagnosed with Covid-19, and 47 new cases, were reported on Wednesday. This brings to 1,659 the total number of deaths in the Republic, and to 25,111 the number of cases.

Up to 40 per cent of cases are still occurring through community transmission, meaning the cause of infection is unknown.

As to whether phase two would begin as planned next week, Dr Holohan said “our planning assumption has been that we’ll get there but we don’t know for certain”.

“As yet there is nothing suggesting we won’t be in a position to make that recommendation, but we need to let the remaining days of the week elapse.”

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