Government Ministers have signalled they want as wide a reopening as possible in May as the State’s vaccination programme continues to suffer from supply shortfalls and restrictions on the use of vaccines.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar became the latest Minister to suggest that the reopening of social and economic life in May and June is on track, following optimistic comments by the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, and Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris in recent days.
The Cabinet agreed on Tuesday to proceed as planned with the further gradual easing of a number of restrictions from Monday. This includes the reopening of facilities for outdoor sports, including golf and tennis, and outdoor visitor attractions including zoos and heritage sites.
The maximum attendance at funerals will increase to 25 but the ban on other gatherings remains.
Senior Government sources indicated on Tuesday night that they expect further easing to proceed briskly over the next two months, with the potential for some sectors to be accelerated if case numbers continue to decline.
One source involved in the process said the belief on the political side was that there was declining public tolerance for the continuing lockdown as case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths continue to fall. The Government needs to recognise and take account of this as it makes plans for the coming months, several senior sources said.
It is understood, however, that there is resistance to some aspects of reopening from public health officials who prefer a more cautious timetable, and aspects of the plans remain under discussion. There is expected to be intense behind-the-scenes wrangling before decisions on the May reopening are finalised and announced in the middle of next week.
There are also intense discussions going on in Government over the vaccination programme. Disruption and delay to vaccine deliveries mean the State will struggle to hit its slimmed-down ambition of 860,000 doses in April, and presents a headwind for the target of giving a single dose to 80 per cent of adults by the end of June.
“We’re working towards that as best we can,” HSE vaccination lead Damien McCallion told the Oireachtas Committee on Health on Tuesday, but he added: “There are very significant supply challenges.”
AstraZeneca again cut its delivery volumes for a shipment scheduled on April 24th from 45,000 to just 9,000, while a delivery of 165,000 doses due on Friday April 30th has been delayed until May 3rd.
The short-term impact will be mitigated by a stockpile of AstraZeneca doses and increased Pfizer deliveries, but it will be another drag on the goal of hitting 250,000 doses administered in a week. Mr McCallion said the HSE will hit that figure, “but at the moment, we do not have the supply to test the system to get there.”
He said the HSE expects to receive 800,000 doses in April, 1.4 million in May and 1.6 million in June. Between 140,000 and 160,000 doses will be given this week.
But uneven progress is causing unrest among coalition backbenchers. Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin South West John Lahart said the HSE and Government should “stop promising 250,000 a week and just be straight with people about the vaccine rollout, you’ll get more respect for it”.
On Tuesday, Johnson & Johnson said it was to resume deliveries of its one-shot Covid-19 vaccine to the European Union after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) confirmed its benefits outweighed the risks of blood clots as a very rare side effect.
Chair of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) Prof Karina Butler indicated the body would consider the EMA finding and await more data due in the coming days from the EU and UK regulators before making a recommendation for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and on the question of lengthening dose intervals of the Pfizer shots.
There is impatience in Government about a recommendation on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which sources say could be administered as early as next week if cleared by Niac, helping to make up for the AstraZeneca shortfalls.
Significantly, Prof Butler said the data would be studied alongside supply forecasts and the wider impact of Niac advice on the programme before a recommendation was given to the Department of Health.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health confirmed on Tuesday that the State’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan had returned to work.
Dr Holohan’s wife, Dr Emer Feely, died after long illness in February, and he had been on leave until this week.