Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan has said the requirement for children to wear face masks in schools should be removed immediately and he hopes it can be done “straight away”.
Mr Ryan said masks should also no longer be mandatory in retail and public transport settings, but instead included in public guidance.
It comes as the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) meets with a discussion to whether to relax rules on face masks on the agenda.
Face masks must currently be worn on public transport and in shops by law and there are fines for breaches of this requirement. In schools, wearing masks remains as advice for those from third class up, even after the requirement to do so in many other settings has fallen away.
“My view, which I’m happy to share publicly, is that we should start immediately by removing the requirement for our school children have to wear masks in school,” Mr Ryan said.
“It was put in for good reasons, for good public health reasons but I think there are also good reasons for the health of our children in the wider context of them not having to wear masks and I hope that can be done straight away.
“I have the same view with regards to retail and public transport; I believe that we should go from a mandatory system towards a public health guidance [system], that continue to wear masks, it makes sense… and I would advise anyone to continue for the immediate because we still have Covid, it’s quite a scale.”
Mr Ryan said he had listened to concerns from teachers’ and public transport unions and that he believed the vast majority of people would continue to wear masks in the short term adding “I don’t believe we should continue it as a mandatory system”.
Mr Ryan was responding to Labour leader Alan Kelly during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil on Thursday who said many transport and retail unions had concerns about face masks no longer being required.
He said there was a lot of anxiety for staff and people who are vulnerable and those considering using public transport.
The general secretary of the National Bus and Rail Union, Dermot O'Leary, said his members were concerned there could be conflict between passengers over the wearing of masks.
Speaking on RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland, Mr O'Leary said his union led the campaign to have masks be made mandatory on public transport. It was only three weeks since 100 per cent capacity on transport returned and the union was concerned that removing the mandatory mask rule now would be "rushing".
The managing director of Retail Excellence Ireland, Duncan Graham, said it was time for people to make up their own mind on wearing masks.
Compliance from retail workers and shoppers had been exceptional, he said, but the mandate had taken away from the enjoyable experience of shoppers.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he will continue to wear a face mask in shops and on public transport even if rules are eased.
“I will continue to wear masks, going into retail, and if I’m on public transport, and will continue to do that as a as a precaution,” Mr Martin said in Brussels on Thursday ahead of a summit of European Union and African leaders.
He noted there was a difference between legally mandated rules and public health advice or guidance.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan in a recent meeting had been “pleased in terms of the current trajectory of the disease” in a recent meeting, the Taoiseach said.
“The pandemic isn’t over. But we are in a different phase of the pandemic,” he said.
Going forward, the focus would be on vaccination, and those who have not been vaccinated or received a booster because they caught Covid-19 should come forward to receive jabs, he said.
“There’s absolutely no question that the vaccine was critical, and the booster was critical, to preventing a lot of people from ending up in hospital or an intensive care or from getting very sick,” the Taoiseach said.
Public health advice
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has said that wearing masks will be removed “the moment” it is advised they are no longer required. Speaking in Dublin on Thursday, Mr Harris said the reason people are wearing masks is not based on political decisions but due to public health advice.
“The moment the National Public Health Emergency Team believes that not to be required any longer, is the moment Government will act,” he said. “I expect they’ll communicate their advice to the Government later today, and then the Government will act swiftly in relation to that advice.”
He said the overall context was a positive trajectory for the virus both in Ireland and elsewhere, and that “restrictions and requirements should only remain in place for the time they’re required from a public health point of view”.
Asked about the future of Nphet, he said he believed it was a fact that it was likely to play “a less active role” in the future.
Level of immunity
It is time to lift the mandate to wear masks, an immunologist has said, as “now is as good as it’s going to get” with regard to cases of Omicron.
Prof Paul Moynagh said there was now a level of immunity to Covid-19 in the population because of vaccination and asked: "If we don't lift mask restrictions now, when will we lift them?"
Prof Moynagh said on Thursday morning that masks had a benefit, but the Omicron variant was difficult to control. He said the variant was less severe than previous versions of the virus and the high case numbers were not translating into high hospital numbers or severe illness.
He said he hoped there would not be conflict in workplaces between colleagues who had differing opinions on mask wearing in the workplace.