The Cabinet will next week move to extend Level 5 restrictions until late February as Taoiseach Micheál Martin promised a “very significant ramping up” of coronavirus vaccinations.
Ministers will meet next Tuesday to extend restrictions beyond the end of this month and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney confirmed to the Fine Gael parliamentary party last night that the “vast majority of restrictions will be maintained well into February”.
Mr Coveney said the issue would be discussed at a Cabinet subcommittee meeting next week before a decision is made by Cabinet on Tuesday.
Officials in the Department of Education are exploring whether schools can reopen in February, however, the delay in reopening schools for children with special needs has dampened the prospects of agreement in time for February 1st.
Sources have said the department will follow whatever is advised by the State’s public health team and officials will examine whether mobility has reduced enough to allow students to return to class.
Sources say one option being explored involves identifying whether a critical mass of school staff and boards of management want to temporarily reopen on a voluntary basis for students with special needs.
However, there are concerns that such a move may result in a partial reopening and lead to inequity across the education system.
Engagement between the department and unions is due to continue today.
It is also understood that the hospitality sector may not reopen properly until the tail-end of spring, potentially as late as the end of May or early June.
Restaurants and cafes had hoped to be in a position to reopen outdoors by April but this is now being viewed as increasingly unlikely unless there is a faster than expected rollout of coronavirus vaccines.
Senior figures in the industry are understood to have recently asked Government if a reopening would be possible after the end of March when the most vulnerable categories have been vaccinated against the virus.
They were told that the risk of reopening society would still be too high with about 80 per cent of the population still needing a vaccine at that stage, under the current projections. The existence of new highly transmissible variants of the virus have further complicated matters.
The Taoiseach, who will brief EU leaders today on Ireland’s post-Christmas spike in coronavirus cases, yesterday promised that the Government had a plan for ramping up vaccinations when more become available.
"We have a much more comprehensive and detailed plan for ramping up the volume of vaccinations in the next phase, particularly after the authorisation by the European Medicines Agency of the AstraZeneca vaccine which, all going well, should be on January 29th, with delivery expected in mid-February," he said.
“This will be followed by the Janssen vaccine, which we expect to be authorised a month later. We will also be getting more supplies from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. There will, therefore, be a very significant ramping-up.”
Childcare providers have also called on the Government to give clarity on its reopening plans for the sector. Seas Suas, the representative body for independent early learning and care providers in Ireland, wrote to Minister for Children Roderic O'Gorman asking details on whether the sector would reopen for all children or continue to cater for children of essential and frontline workers only.
The Department of Health was notified of a further 61 coronavirus-related deaths and 2,488 new confirmed cases yesterday. All but three of the deaths occurred in January. Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said the figures illustrated that people must continue to adhere to public health restrictions.
“The virus spreads through close contacts, through the congregation of people. We need everyone to stay at home as much as possible, and to work from home, where possible. You should not meet up with friends or loved ones, unless you are caring for them.”