The Government has approved plans to remove almost all Covid-19 related restrictions next Monday.
Under a plan that went to Cabinet, all legal requirements to wear masks will expire after February 28th, with their use only required in healthcare settings.
People will be advised to exercise their own judgement on the use of masks in schools, in retail settings and on public transport.
Speaking during a visit to Berlin, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he wanted to thank the Irish people for their resilience and the manner in which they responded to the pandemic. “It has been a very difficult period. Many people have lost their lives as a result of the pandemic, many families are bereaved, many have fallen ill and it has caused strain at different times on the health service ... to which we how a huge debt of gratitude,” said.
He said there would be a Covid subcommittee meeting next Monday. “I think the challenge there is to map out how to manage and navigate Covid for the next 12 months, with a more permanent vaccination structure in response to given situations.”
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar also said there would be “significant changes” regarding testing. People with symptoms who are aged under 55, or those over that age who have had a booster vaccine dose and are in good health, are no longer required to get tested. Those aged over 55 and not boosted, pregnant women and people who are immuno-compromised or have high-risk medical conditions should still get a Covid-19 test.
People with confirmed cases of Covid-19 must still self-isolate. However,close contact are no longer required to restrict movement or self-isolate unless they have symptoms from Monday.
The changes were announced as the Health Protection Surveillance Centre reported an additonal 3,294 PCR-confirmed cases of the disease, as well as the logging of a further 4,060 positive antigen tests through the HSE’s online portal.
There were 608 people being treated for the disease in the State’s hospitals on Tuesday, a decrease of 28 in 24 hours, including 54 patients in intensive care, an increase of one.
Mr Varadkar said Cabinet agreed to accept the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) and he described the changes as the next steps towards living with Covid-19 as an endemic disease.
While mask mandates would end on Monday as a legal requirement, he said it was still advised to wear them on public transport and in healthcare settings. He said people who still wished to wear masks should feel free to do so.
In schools and childcare pods for children, staggered breaks and physical distancing can also end from Monday. These settings will still be required to practice good hygiene and have good ventilation, while children should stay at home if they are sick.
Mr Varadkar said Nphet recommended that there be no vaccine mandates either for the general public or healthcare workers and the Government has agreed with this.
Teaching unions expressed concerns over the decision to end mask wearing requirements in classrooms. The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which represents staff at second- and third-level, said the move could be “premature”.
It said it was particularly concerned about the impact of the decision on staff and students with underlying health issues, or those who had at-risk family members.
“Removal of such a key protection against infection will be an extremely worrying development for them and their families in what has already been a very stressful two years,” the union said in a statement.
The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (Asti) said it would “continue to urge caution” around changes to Covid-19 safety measures in secondary schools. “Covid-19 is still a threat to the operation of schools and the education of young people,” it said.
Meanwhile, Ireland could more than double its contributions to global efforts to vaccinate people against Covid-19 under proposals being examined by Government.
Donation of vaccines
Plans to donate up to 3.3 million more jabs are being developed by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly with a view to being finalised in the coming weeks.
Ireland - which has high levels of vaccination it is own population - has already donated or pledged around three million doses.
Mr Donnelly is understood to be examining how further contributions can be made with a source saying he is “keen to see greater vaccine equity and solidarity” especially with the African continent.
Under the proposals Ireland will maintain sufficient vaccine stocks to cater for the current vaccination programme and any possible further vaccine roll-out later this year.
However, Mr Donnelly is said to be authorising a waiver of additional vaccine options on 1.7 million doses which will be donated as part of an EU-wide donation of Janssen vaccines.
The possibility of donating a further 1.1 million donation of Janssen vaccines - due in Ireland in the second quarter of 2022 - is also being examined.
Almost half a million Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that are already in Ireland - and have a shelf life of at least July onwards - may also be donated on a bilateral basis with other countries.