Two years and a month after it first met at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) is to be disbanded.
In a letter to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on Thursday night following a meeting of the group earlier, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan recommended Nphet be stood down.
Though Ministers and senior officials continue to insist the pandemic is “not over”, the move is the clearest sign yet that the public health emergency it triggered is coming to an end.
Dr Holohan thanked members of the group for their service during the Covid-19 crisis in case, he said, he did not get another chance to do so.
The team has provided advice to Ministers since the beginning of the crisis and often seemed, to some observers, to be almost a proto-government.
Nphet recommended the lifting of almost all remaining Covid restrictions from the end of this month, though the advice to wear masks in medical settings will remain. This means the requirement for masks in shops, on public transport and in schools will end on Monday week.
Most schools are closed for the mid-term break next week, so Friday – for schools not closed due to the weather – will be the last day pupils will be required to wear a mask.
The well-trailed decision to remove the mask mandate received a muted reception, with some dissenting voices.
Dr Tomas Ryan of the Independent Scientific Advisory Group – which has advocated a “zero Covid” approach – described the decision as premature, saying masks should be retained in schools for “the next few months” as most primary school children were not vaccinated.
People Before Profit/Solidarity TD Paul Murphy said it was disappointing Nphet had recommended mask-wearing in retail, public transport and schools become optional.
While some critics of the decision referred to a “spike” in hospitalisations of children with Covid-19, the Health Service Executive said the number of under-15s with Covid in hospital last Tuesday was 33, down from 43 the previous week.