The start of the phased lifting of most remaining Covid-19 restrictions on society is less than four weeks away under plans being developed by Government this weekend.
Workers will be able to return to offices, live entertainment is to resume, and Communions and Confirmations will be allowed take place as part of the proposals being considered by senior Ministers.
September 20th is seen as a key date in what the Government hopes will be the final reopening of Irish society following the measures imposed due to the pandemic.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said September would be a “significant month” in terms of the reopening of society as he pointed to the expected high levels of full vaccination among the adult population.
While the final timelines will not be signed off on until a full Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the Government is to press ahead with the easing of restrictions even if the full criteria for reopening as set out by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) are not met.
These include having more than 90 per cent of people over the age of 16 fully vaccinated – a threshold that is expected to be broadly reached by September 20th.
Nphet also said occupancy rates in hospitals and intensive care units should be reducing or reduced to low levels so that non-Covid health services were protected.
Concern was raised among Ministers at Friday’s Cabinet sub-committee meeting at this condition, as a drop in the number of people in hospital would lag behind a fall in cases in the community and in hospital admissions.
That could potentially delay reopening until November.
However, sources said this would not stop plans to begin reopening next month, with one pointing out “the public has done what has been asked of them”.
There was said to be “broad consensus” that if the Nphet advice was followed fully, it would be months before restrictions could be eased in a “significant way”.
Another senior source said the HSE’s winter plan was to be launched earlier this year, with private hospitals being used for elective treatment and the “bottom line” was that almost 90 per cent of adults were expected to be vaccinated by around September 6th.
Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan is pushing for a return to 100 per cent capacity on public transport from next week as part of plans for the return to the workplace, schools and colleges.
The return to offices is expected to begin on a phased basis in September. The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) has drawn up checklists for employers on how this should happen with further guidance likely to be issued from Government next week.
Separately, the possibility of using vaccine passes to increase numbers allowed to attend theatre performances has been discussed, though no final decisions have been taken. Currently audiences are restricted to 50.
An increase in the number of people who can attend outdoor events is expected, up from the current limit of 500.
However, the fate of the Electric Picnic music festival still hangs in the balance with efforts to find a way to allow it to go ahead continuing this weekend.
There is expected to be a resumption of indoor sport and dance classes.
Mr Martin placed huge emphasis on the landmark of 90 per cent of the adult population being fully vaccinated saying it represented the “optimum” percentage that could be reached in terms of vaccination.
He said Nphet had said a two-week buffer period was required after people received their final vaccine dose. That would indicate September 20th would be the indicative date for most reopenings.
“We can certainly see the lifting of restrictions in terms of entertainment and theatre and the arts in September,” Mr Martin said.