Ireland’s second lockdown ends today as non-essential retail outlets, churches, gyms, hairdressers and other businesses open their doors for the first time in six weeks.
But public health chiefs warned that Covid-19 infections would rise quickly if people do not keep their social contacts to a minimum. And the Government emphasised the need for caution as the Christmas season begins, banning office parties and large gatherings when pubs and restaurants open on Friday.
"Just because you can do things tomorrow doesn't mean you should," said assistant chief medical officer Ronan Glynn on Monday evening.
He said “now is not the time to be socialising with friends” and warned of “significant issues” if this happens.
Chief medical officer Tony Holohan said office parties "shouldn't be happening", adding that people should avoid crowded situations in the run-up to Christmas. He urged people to "drive down our number of contacts".
The Government confirmed that restaurants and gastropubs will not be allowed to take bookings for office parties or other business-related gatherings when they open on Friday, under new rules presented to Ministers.
Multiple table bookings will also be banned, there can be no sponsored work or business-related parties or social gatherings, including office Christmas parties. There will also be a ban on live music or loud music in gastropubs or restaurants.
Meanwhile, as preparations for a vaccine advance, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly will today ask Cabinet to approve an advance purchase agreement of 800,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine.
The State’s vaccine taskforce met again yesterday as it prepares to present a plan towards the end of next week for distributing the vaccine. Membership of the group has been expanded to include a range of capabilities in public health, as well as specialised logistics that will be needed to manage delivery of the drug.
Mr Donnelly said at the weekend he was hopeful doses could be delivered early in the New Year. While there is intense speculation about when the vaccine will be available, no firm date has yet been set, as it is conditional on approval from the European medicines agency.
How many in intensive care?
Meanwhile, the National Public Health Emergency Team reported an additional 306 confirmed cases of the disease last night. The 14-day national incidence now stands at 89.2 cases per 100,000 people.
Over the six weeks of restrictions, the incidence of Covid-19 has fallen from 307 cases per 100,000 people to 89. Intensive care numbers have fallen from a peak of 47 to 31 now.
So far this month, 119 Covid-19 patients have died, the same figure as in October; 37 patients died in September. There have been 38 deaths in hospitals linked to virus outbreaks, compared to 23 in October and seven in September.
There are 61 open outbreaks in 25 hospitals, with 910 linked cases. Of these cases, 409 are healthcare workers and 501 are patients.
In nursing homes, there are 35 open investigations into outbreaks, associated with 908 cases. There were 38 nursing home deaths in November, 48 in October and 12 in September.
The gardaí said that they would police the reopening with “a high visibility presence to provide public reassurance”.
Fixed checkpoints on motorways and dual carriageway routes are to be discontinued, although “high visibility patrols will take place in key city, urban and retail locations” will begin.
There will also be patrols that will focus on the night-time economy, said Garda Headquarters, while checks on licensed premises under Operation Navigation will be stepped up.
However, the Garda said it can only enforce penal regulations. The force does not have powers to enforce public health guidelines, it said.