Legislation to extend the Government’s powers to impose Covid regulations will be rushed through the Oireachtas in the coming days as Ministers face the prospect of restrictions potentially lasting until the middle of next year.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin briefed the Cabinet on Tuesday on the current situation with the pandemic, telling Ministers that infections were “high but relatively stable”, the Government spokesman said.
Mr Martin said people had reduced socialising but the decline needed to be maintained, raising expectations in some political quarters that further restrictions may be recommended by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) when it meets on Thursday.
The Cabinet approved a raft of measures to control the current wave of cases and the threat from the new Omicron variant. These measures require travellers into Ireland to show clear PCR or antigen tests, introduce mask wearing from primary school children from third class up and ask parents to limit their children’s socialising.
Guidance circulated by the Department of Education will mean the requirement for masks for nine year olds will come into place on Wednesday morning, with officials saying schools could refuse to admit children without masks, though they stressed no child with a valid medical reason would be forced to wear one.
Schools and January
On Tuesday night, the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, in a letter to parents, warned there had been “a significant and rapid deterioration in the epidemiological situation, and a resultant very high incidence in the as-yet-unvaccinated five-to-11-year-old age group”.
He reaffirmed the restrictions advised to the Government last week, and also appealed to parents to reduce their own social contacts. He said that where playdates and birthday parties took place, there should be only one other household and they should take place outside.
But the Government pushed back strongly against the suggestion schools would either close early before Christmas or there was a question mark over their reopening in January, after the Christmas holidays, as happened last year.
Mr Martin told the Dáil the target for schools was to get to the Christmas break, recalibrate and “review how we deal with the next semester”. Mr Martin also said that graphs from public health doctors showed that cases in five to 11 year olds and their parents were “going through the roof” in recent weeks.
However, officials said he was referring to a general need to continue to monitor how schools were managing with the pandemic. “There’s been no talk whatsoever of schools not reopening – it’s not on the cards,” his spokesman said, later adding: “There is absolutely no plan to delay or postpone the reopening of schools after Christmas.”
Two pieces of legislation – one to extend several Covid powers and one specifically to revive mandatory hotel quarantine if needed – are to be brought to the Dáil and Seanad in the coming days.
The mandatory hotel legislation is necessary because those powers have already lapsed, while the other Covid powers – including those concerning masks, hospitality restrictions, Covid certificates, travel restrictions and others – are due to lapse early next year.
It is now proposed to extend the powers until March 31st, and to make them further extendable for one three-month period with Oireachtas approval.
Officials are currently preparing orders to require travellers into the country to show a negative PCR or antigen test from Friday. There will be “spot checks” at the airport to ensure travellers are compliant, but officials said it would be mostly a matter for airlines and ferry companies to ensure that passengers could show a negative test.
The Government is considering fines for carriers which allow people without tests to board, while a spokesman confirmed there would be fines for passengers who could not show a negative test. There will be no checks for travellers from Northern Ireland.