Lockdown exit: Ministers to discuss easing restrictions after 'grim' Nphet warning not to take risks

State has not vaccinated enough people to take risks with Covid-19 restrictions, Ministers are warned

The State has not vaccinated enough people to take risks when it comes to Covid-19 restrictions, Ministers have been warned. File photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

The State has not vaccinated enough people to take risks when it comes to Covid-19 restrictions, Ministers have been warned. File photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

 

The State has not vaccinated enough people to take risks when it comes to Covid-19 restrictions, Ministers were warned on Monday night.

The Cabinet coronavirus committee met for more than four hours on Monday and heard presentations from the HSE, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) and the high-level vaccine taskforce. Sources at the meeting described the mood as “grim” and said that the meeting heard that while Covid-19 cases are stable at the current level of restrictions, altering public health measures could change this.

A Government source said there was a view emerging that there is nowhere near enough people vaccinated in Ireland to take risks.

Ministers were told that if the State lost control of the disease now there could be a substantial wave of infections until the middle of the summer, whereas a cautious approach for the next four to eight weeks could cut the risk by between 50 and 70 per cent.

The Cabinet will meet on Tuesday to discuss potentially easing restrictions on a gradual and phased basis, potentially week-by-week or fortnight-by-fortnight. While talks were ongoing on Monday night, some in Government believe the Coalition has little room for manoeuvre and will have to heed warnings by Nphet.

If they do so, immediate reopening of the construction sector would be endangered, sources say.

A number of potential measures have already been flagged as being under consideration, including lifting the 5km travel limit.

The general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI), Antoinette Cunningham, warned, however, that any easing of the 5km travel restriction would make policing the pandemic even more challenging.

The Government will also on Tuesday consider allowing two households to meet outdoors in a place that is not a private garden, and allowing non-contact sports training in pods for children. Ministers will also discuss potentially allowing people to play golf or tennis, although no decisions have yet been made.

Some Ministers will also push for a phased return to construction, although there are fears among health officials that this could result in travel between counties which could pose an infection risk.

Ministers were told by the HSE that it would struggle to cope with another wave of disease if it hit.

Mandatory quarantine

It is expected that the list of countries from which travellers are subject to mandatory quarantine on arrival here is to be expanded, as the pandemic grows in several states, including many in Europe. Sources indicated that officials are likely to push for an expansion of the list, but that this may not be imminent.

Any expansion of the 33 countries currently on the list would require more capacity in hotel accommodation used by the State for quarantining, especially if the expansion included countries with high levels of travel into the Republic.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that the Department of Public Expenditure (DPER) as early as February 18th raised queries about the HSE’s testing and tracing strategy “in light of the progress of the vaccination programme”.

Official minutes of the Health Budget Oversight Group – which comprises officials of DPER, the Department of Health and the HSE – said: “On staffing of the testing and tracing programme it was indicated that it is not intended to carry out any further recruitment other than managing attrition.”

The minutes also show that DPER questioned whether some of the 16,000 additional staff earmarked for the health service this year could be used initially to operate the Covid-19 vaccination programme rather than recruiting further staff for this.

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