The Government will not make a final decision on the proposed reopening of the indoor hospitality sector on July 5th until closer to the date, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said.
Mr Donnelly said he was very concerned about the growing number of cases of the Delta variant in Ireland as it now accounts for one in five cases.
The figure is 90 per cent of cases in the UK and it is growing rapidly in Northern Ireland.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) will provide a full public health analysis to the Cabinet on the reopening of indoor dining, and there will also be economic and social analyses before a decision is reached, he told RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland.
It had been “a heartbreaking year” for the hospitality sector, the Minister said, but the message he had received from industry representatives was that whatever decision was made, it had to be sustainable.
No one wanted to push too far and then have to pull back, he added. “Covid tears up the best-made plans.”
The Cabinet will make a decision in the best interest of a sustained opening, he said. The Minister said he expected to meet Nphet on Thursday of next week to discuss the situation.
The speeding up or delay of reopening was always on the table, but any decision would be made on the basis of public health advice, Mr Donnelly said.
Meanwhile, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said he would be concerned over any change to the plan to reopen indoor dining in early July, but the Delta variant was unfortunately showing “clear signs of growing in our country”.
“I would be concerned for employers, for employment, and for the impact on our economy, if there were to be a change in our reopening plans,” he told a press conference on Wednesday.
“The Government did say when we announced our reopening plan that each stage of the reopening is dependent on the health of our country, and is dependent on the nature of the disease.
“It is too early to say yet whether the plans that we have in place for the 5th of July are going to be changed, but we understand this is obviously a matter of huge concern.”
The Minister said he “absolutely” appreciated the anxiety news of the spread of the more transmissible variant was causing people.
Mr Donohoe said he hoped any change to the plan could be avoided, but added the Government wanted sectors that did reopen to have the “best possible chance” of remaining open.
Privately, some Ministers and senior officials fear an increase in Covid-19 case numbers due to the Delta variant over the next week will force them to delay reopening of indoor hospitality until after the July 5th date.
While officials say there are at present no grounds to delay, senior public health sources said the chances of issuing advice to proceed as planned are “50-50”, and argued a two- or three-week delay could be effective.
A delay in the latest phase of reopening would allow for further numbers to be vaccinated and help prevent the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant.
“[That] buys you an extra 10-15 per cent of the population protected – that’s huge,” one senior public health official said, referring to the ongoing vaccination programme. “Why risk things for the sake of two weeks when we’ve come this far?”
On Tuesday a number of Ministers had acknowledged growing concern, and while some said it was not yet at the level that would halt reopening, multiple sources agreed public health advice would set the pace. One said there was “not a hope in hell” advice to delay would be ignored.
Chief executive of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, Padraig Cribben, has said the decision cannot wait until July 3rd as pub owners need to rehire staff and order stock in time for the reopening.
He said the late decision planned by Government “illustrates how detached Ministers are from the realities of running a business”.
He said there is huge concern and upset in the hospitality industry, adding: “The mental stress this uncertainty is placing on our members cannot be overstated.”
Mr Cribben said the summer is essential to publicans to recoup losses made during the Covid-19 pandemic and that losing the eight weeks of July and August would “devastate the trade”.
“It’s beyond belief we are now thinking of going backwards while the rest of Europe moves forward,” he added.
Meanwhile, virologist Dr Gerald Barry has said he would be "fairly happy" with the easing of restrictions on July 5th, allowing restaurants and pubs to serve customers indoors, even though it was likely there would be a spike in cases of Covid-19 afterwards.
The Delta variant of the virus was very transmissible, indoors or outdoors, he told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland on Wednesday.
It was likely the number of cases of the variant would increase in the coming weeks, but the growing number of people who were vaccinated would mean that the impact would not be as high as in the past, Dr Barry said.
In some cases the virus did not need a prolonged interaction between people to spread, citing evidence in Australia recently where detailed contact tracing had revealed a person was infected with the variant after brushing past another person in a shopping centre.
Dr Barry warned that if a person was not vaccinated they were twice as likely to end up in hospital with the Delta variant.
In the UK where indoor hospitality had reopened on May 17th, cases had risen from 2,000 to 11,000 with a slow increase in hospitalisations and deaths.
Dr Barry noted that by July 5th Ireland will have a higher rate of vaccination proportionally than the UK had when it reopening indoor dining.
“If we open indoor dining on July 5th, we will see a spike in cases, but I am fairly happy to open,” he said.
However, immunologist Prof Christine Loscher has said Ireland is not “far ahead enough” in the vaccination programme to absorb the impact the Delta variant could have on the population.
The biggest concern is how the variant could effect older people who have not yet received their second AstraZeneca dose, she told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show.
Prof Loscher said the Delta variant doubles the risk of hospitalisation and those who have received only one dose of the vaccine have just 30 per cent protection against it.