‘Race between variant and vaccines,’ Taoiseach says as indoor hospitality reopening postponed

Cabinet seeks workable plan for how customers can prove they have been vaccinated

Publicans across Ireland were left frustrated after the Cabinet has agreed to postpone the reopening of indoor dining until there is a workable plan for how customers can prove they have been vaccinated. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

The Cabinet has agreed to postpone the reopening of indoor dining until there is a workable plan for how customers can prove they have been vaccinated.

The plan is to be drawn up by July 19th but a decision has yet to be made on when indoor services can reopen.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin announcing details of the Cabinet decision said the clear advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) was that indoor dining should be restricted to people who were fully-vaccinated to limit the spread of Covid-19 at a time of highly-infectious variants.

“We are in a race between the variant and vaccines and we want to do everything we can to make sure the vaccine wins,” the Taoiseach said.

He acknowledged there would be disappointment in the hospitality industry about the decision but the Government was committed to a practical and workable approach.

He said when the sector reopens the Government wanted to make sure it stayed open.

“The process of reopening and closing different sectors has had a terrible impact on people’s health and mental well-being.”

He said the Government was advised in “stark terms” that proceeding exactly as planned from July 5th would result in increased cases and hospitalisations.

Mr Martin also promised that the vaccination programme would be accelerated.

He said additional supports will be provided for the coming weeks, and said greater harm would be inflicted if the progress made already was undermined.

Mr Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar sought to defend the u-turn on vaccine passes to access indoor services .

They both pointed to dire warnings about the potential impact of the highly transmissible Delta variant of Covid-19 combined with plans to reopen indoor hospitality on July 5th.

Vaccine certification

Sources said the Government had not been planning to introduce such a system of vaccine certification, and suggested that developing the plan will be a major undertaking. Such a scheme is already in operation in several EU countries.

The July 19th deadline for the drawing up of the new scheme coincides with the restart date for international travel under the EU digital Covid certificate.

Other planned measures are due to go ahead on July 5th. From this date, the number of people allowed at weddings will rise from 25 to 50. Attendances at sports grounds will also increase to 200 or up to 500 at venues with a capacity of 5,000. Allowing communions and confirmations - which had been due to go ahead after July 5th - has also been postponed.

Indoor dining at hotels and guest houses began on June 2nd but only for overnight guests.

Meanwhile, the deadline for closure of the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) for new applicants will be extended from June 30th to July 7th.

Businesses that had anticipated reopening on July 5th will be able to avail of two double weeks of Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS) payments.

The new advice that AstraZeneca and Jannsen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccines can be used for the under 40s was highlighted as a positive outcome of the deliberations of recent days what will allow the rollout to be sped up for younger people.

A plan for implementing such a system is to be drawn up by July 19th but no date has been set for when restaurants and pubs can reopen for indoor diners.

At the post-Cabinet press conference Mr Martin was asked about his previous opposition to the vaccine passes and a suggestion he made at a Fianna Fáil meeting in April that they would only be used for international travel.

He said this had been Government policy prior to the arrival of the Delta variant.

However, he said Nphet was “quite stark” in outlining the transmissibility of the Delta variant and the impact it could have on Covid-19 cases, hospitalistaions and deaths and it has advised that indoor hospitality services should only proceed “once a robust and enforceable system of verification of vaccination or immunity status can be put in place to support it.” Mr Martin said the Government will now examine how this can be done in consultation with the hospitality sector.

He said that fines for businesses that don’t comply with a future vaccine pass system “hasn’t entered our consideration at all at this stage” and the Government does not want to bring in a “punitive regime”

Mr Varadkar, the enterprise Minister, said the delay to reopening indoor services is “enormously difficult” for businesses and there have been “many false dawns.”

There have been opposition calls for an independent review of the Nphet projections on the impact of the Delta variant with some Ministers also said to be in favour of this. Green Party Minister of State Ossian Smyth made remarks on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta on Tuesday suggesting the Government would seek a second independent opinion from the likes of the World Health Organisation.

A Green Party spokesman said Mr Smyth had been asked if independent scrutiny would be worth getting and that he “gave his personal advice that it would”.

Mr Martin said on Tuesday he did not envisage an independent review taking place.

Sobering

The added caution follows a presentation to the Cabinet sub-committee by Nphet on modelling projections on the spread of Covid-19 if highly transmissible variants were aided by increased social mixing. These were described by Government sources last night as “grim” and “sobering”.

Under the most pessimistic scenario, there would be 681,900 cases by the end of September, while the most optimistic scenario would see 81,000 cases, Nphet said. Its letter detailing the projections was released on Tuesday.

The most pessimistic scenario would see 12,985 hospital admissions in the same time period and 1,685 intensive care (ICU) admissions, as well as 2,170 deaths.

The most optimistic scenario would asee 1,530 hospital admissions and 195 ICU admissions.

The Department of Health on Tuesday evening confirmed that Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan’s letter to Government contained an error in a graphic depicting the various scenarios for the estimated number of Covid-19 cases over July, August and September. The graphic said that 165 deaths were projected under the most optimistic scenario. However, the correct estimated death toll in this scenario is 250 as referenced elsewhere in the letter

Nphet included what it called the “counterfactual scenario” where the delta variant had not been introduced to the Republic. Had this happened a lower figure of 21,000 cases, 405 hospitalisations, 55 ICU admissions and 80 deaths was projected for the same period.

‘Not legal’

The Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) said the proposed system would be “unworkable and not legal”.

Its chief executive Adrian Cummins said the changes would run foul of equality legislation and would take many weeks to implement, from a practical perspective.

Mr Cummins said he did not believe the Nphet recommendation was a done deal and he believed there would be opposition to it from some ministers.

“They have come up with this plan at the 11th hour of the 11th hour with absolutely no planning. We have had a number of setbacks in this industry and this is another one,” he said.

The chief executive of the Vintners Association of Ireland Padraig Cribben called on the Government to take a balanced decision on reopening indoor facilities.

“What we are seeing here is what I would term a Nphet variant, which is being facilitated by a government that is either incapable or unwilling to do what it is elected to do and take balanced decisions,” Mr Cribben told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland

The proposals suggested were not based on an independent medical analysis of Nphet’s advice, he said. The Government should not “abdicate its responsibility to Nphet.”

Allowing only vaccinated people to use indoor dining and pubs would lead to “increased stress, anxiety and cost for a sector that is already on its knees,” he added.

The World Health Organisation’s special envoy on Covid-19, Dr David Nabarro expressed caution about using vaccination as a factor to decide if people should be allowed to dine indoors.

Dr Nabarro told Newstalk that the WHO would be nervous about such an approach as it could lead to inequality.

‘Worse case’ data

A professor of Immunovirology at University College Cork has called for a full independent analysis of the Nphet figures.

Prof Liam Fanning told Newstalk Breakfast that data from drug trials was independently scrutinised and he thought that the “worst case” scenario data presented by Nphet should also be independently analysed.

“We don’t need smoke and mirrors, we need the data to be given to people who can fully validate it.”