New Covid-19 variants may delay schools reopening, Cabinet told

Government says there needs to be a ‘note of caution around mass mobility’

The Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 will meet on Thursday and would examine the wider reopening of schools. Photograph:  iStock

The Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 will meet on Thursday and would examine the wider reopening of schools. Photograph: iStock

 

Two Cabinet sub-committees will meet later this week to firm up recommendations on this year’s Leaving Certificate as well as the phased return to schools.

There are suggestions emerging from Government that the timetable for the wider reopening of schools might be delayed a little following the latest public health advice on new variants of Covid-19.

As talks continued on Tuesday evening between Minister for Education Norma Foley and teachers’ unions, the Government said it hoped the negotiations on Leaving Certificate arrangements would reach a conclusion this week.

A spokesman said that the Cabinet’s education sub-committee was meeting on Wednesday in an effort to bring clarity, on the Leaving Certificate situation and on the phased reopening of schools.

A Government spokesman said there was no definite date yet on the reopening of schools but said the Leaving Certificate classes would be the immediate priority followed by early years primary children, namely junior infants and senior infants.

At a press briefing following the weekly Cabinet meeting it was also disclosed the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 would meet on Thursday and would examine the wider reopening of schools.

That meeting, a spokesman said, would be informed by the latest advice from the European Centre for Disease Control on the new variants of Covid-19 which have raised risk levels.

While schools in themselves are safe, the Government has said there needs to be a “note of caution around mass mobility”.

That suggests that the Government will move at a slower pace than originally planned with the phased reopening of schools.

At its meeting on Tuesday, the Cabinet also discussed mandatory quarantine at designated hotels for people arriving from some countries, with officials attempting to iron out the detail of the plan.

The Government said afterwards that only “minor issues” remained to be resolved in proposed new quarantine legislation.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly brought the text of the draft Health Amendment Bill to Cabinet that would pave the way for 14-day mandatory quarantine in hotels for people arriving from 20 states considered to be high Covid-risks.

Ministers agreed to the Bill in principle but were not in a position to give it final approval by the end of the meeting and the issue was deferred to a second Cabinet meeting later on Tuesday night, this time incorporeal, or virtual.

A Government spokesman said on Tuesday evening that the remaining issues were minor and it was a question of “fine tuning” a complex piece of legislation which was completely new to this jurisdiction.

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The issues were described as minor and the second incorporeal meeting had been arranged “to make sure that concerns were covered”, said the spokesman.

While the figure of €2,000 had been suggested as the cost of accommodation, full-board, laundry and transport during the two-week period, it is understood the costs have yet to be fully worked out.

Under the plans being discussed, people arriving into the State would be told to reserve and pay for their hotel quarantine in advance of arrival. It is understood that Mr Donnelly said an implementation group was examining how to handle instances when people arrive into the State without having arranged their quarantine in advance.

The group is also expected to be tasked with establishing options for a system to handle advanced reservations, with a focus on private providers. The preference is thought to be for an operator that can provide transportation as well as hotel accommodation.

No enforcement powers

While there will be private security at the designated facilities, the Cabinet was also told the security providers would have no enforcement powers meaning gardaí would have to come if there non-compliance issues.

Gardaí will be notified if someone leaves a centre without permission, and non-compliant people can be detained before being returned to the hotel.

People will receive a “letter of completion” on finishing their quarantine period as proof it has been completed.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the Defence Forces would play a role in the mandatory quarantine regime and further meetings on this were planned.

The Cabinet was also told that there would be a review of reasonable excuses for travel overseas, with a particular focus on attending medical appointments. It has emerged that significant numbers of Irish people have booked dental and other medical appointments overseas, with some medical practitioners reporting that they failed to show up.

Vaccine centres

The Cabinet also discussed the locations of the new mass vaccination centres and Mr Donnelly was asked by Ministers if there was enough centres.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan have raised questions about the pace of the State’s Covid-19 vaccination roll-out during the Cabinet meeting.

Mr Varadkar, sources said, asked why some doses of the Moderna vaccine were being held in stock when the stated plan was to distribute them as soon as they arrived.

Mr Ryan asked why it would take three weeks to vaccinate people aged over 85, the process of doing which began this week, and if this could be sped up.

Mr Donnelly is said to have expressed confidence that around 1.2 million vaccine doses would be available in this quarter and up to 4.5 million doses in the next.

Earlier, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said politics was not a factor in the selection of the locations chosen to serve as Covid-19 mass vaccination centres.

He was responding to complaints from some TDs about the list of 37 centres, published on Monday, including his Fine Gael party colleague and former minister Michael Ring.

There is at least one centre in each of the State’s 26 counties, with five sites in Cork, four in Dublin and two in Kerry, Wicklow, Westmeath and Tipperary.

Mr Ring noted that there was only one in a county the size of Mayo but two in Wicklow, the constituency of Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

Mr Donohoe told Newstalk Breakfast that the location of these centres was “well beyond the influence of a Minister”.

The location of the sites had been determined by public health experts and with a focus on the ease with which people could travel to them, he added.

“The biggest story is the progress we’re making,” he said.

 

Separately, Mr Donohoe said that the Government would soon decide formally on the extension of Covid-19 support payments for workers and businesses.

Necessary

He said initiatives such as the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) had cost some €2.2 billion to date but would continue “well beyond the end of March” as they were necessary to protect jobs and to ensure the economy is able to recover from the disruption caused by the pandemic.

Hospitality has been one of the sectors hit hardest by Covid-19 restrictions, with tens of thousands out of work for much of the last year due to the enforced closure of bars and restaurants.

When asked about the reopening of hospitality, Mr Donohoe said this would be contingent on public health guidance, but that the Government would give the sector “good notice” to plan and prepare.

“I hope in the coming weeks we can give the clarity they seek.”