Live music, the arts, leisure and the entertainment sector could reopen using the Government’s proposed system of access to indoor dining for those who are fully vaccinated, the Tánaiste has told the Dáil.
Speaking about the plan to restrict indoor dining to people who have been fully vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19, Leo Varadkar said “we may not have to use this system for very long”.
However, he added: “In the meantime, we might be able to use it to reopen other sectors currently closed like live music, for example, the arts, leisure, and entertainment facilities.”
Mr Varadkar said that both PCR and antigen testing would be part of the plan although it would take time to establish.
He repeatedly acknowledged that the overall plan is “imperfect” but as he challenged the Opposition to outline alternatives he said it was the better “middle path - a safe path” between two alternatives to either full re-open the hospitality sector without any restrictions or to keep it closed until there is herd immunity, which he said was not an option.
He said the State is taking a similar approach to what Denmark and Germany have been doing for some time and which France, Portugal and Greece are going to implement.
‘A middle course’
“We’re taking a middle course that can reopen indoor hospitality in a safe and sustainable way,” he said adding that there will be a sunset clause with a review in October.
The Tánaiste said owners will have to follow existing practices of keeping contact details with additional checks that a person has a valid certificate.
He stressed however that “although there will be enforcement measures in place, this isn’t about catching anyone out, and we’re certainly not going to see compliance officers going Table to Table, checking people’s passes”.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, who introduced the controversial Bill, has also included measures to ease the mandatory hotel quarantine regime and create “flexibility” by allowing alternative testing processes for passengers arriving without a test.
It removes the obligation on some or all travellers to have a pre-travel test and allows those who have recovered from Covid-19 to be released from quarantine.
Mr Donnelly said “we must continue to take a cautious and pragmatic approach to reopening” because of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
He also said that all second doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine should be administered by the end of this week, adding: “Three in every five adults are now fully vaccinated and later this week we will have administered five million doses of vaccine.”
Proof of recovery
Meanwhile, family doctors have doubled down on criticism of the suggestion that they might have a role in providing proof that people have recovered from Covid and can access indoor dining.
The Covid adviser to the Irish College of General Practitioners, Dr Mary Favier, said that general practitioners have no role to play in the issuing of certificates or letters for people recovering from Covid.
It was not appropriate for GPs to be expected to be involved because of the “sheer workload” they were already facing along with the lack of accurate information on Covid cases following the cyber attack on the Health Service Executive.
"I cannot see a role we could play in providing credible documentation," Dr Favier told RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland.
GPs were always willing to help their patients, however there had been a "collective sharp intake of breath" on Tuesday morning when Minister for Tourism Catherine Martin said on radio GPs would be issuing "recovery certs", she said.
“One GP told me he almost crashed his car,” she said.
Across the country there had been a “huge surge” of calls to general practices on Tuesday following the Minister’s comments.
“Our phone lines were slammed,” Dr Favier said, adding that general practices were already “exceptionally busy” trying to cope with their existing workloads.
Donegal GP Denis McCauley said any documentation from GPs about people who have recovered from Covid would be "useless".
There was a pathway involving public health and tracking and tracing systems that would provide that information, he told RTÉ radio's Today with Claire Byrne show.
There needed to be “one unified source” for such documentation and GPs could not do that because they did not have access to case results since the malware attack on the HSE, he said.
If the Government was serious about such a system then it needed to be practical with a central source providing the information, Dr McCauley said.
In the very rare circumstances where a person could not be vaccinated, which would be very unique, he said, a GP would never issue any sort of document without first consulting with public health. “Issuing a letter like that would be meaningless.”
About 130,000 people have been diagnosed with Covid-19 in the last six months, potentially meaning they will be able to access indoor dining due to their acquired immunity, under plans to reopen the sector confirmed by the Government this week.
However, confusion and counterclaims have flown over how exactly these people will prove a recent infection.
One route is to obtain a Digital Covid Certificate (DCC) – those with a recently diagnosed infection can request one by contacting the DCC helpline, which is due to open to general queries of this nature next week.
Asked what people who had Covid would receive that would allow them to access indoor dining, Ms Martin said on Tuesday that people could apply to GPs or their testing centre for a “recovery cert” and that GPs would be able to confirm someone had Covid – and that such a cert would also be available from the helpline.
Asked if GPs were aware they were going to do this, she said the Department of Health would have been consulted.
This prompted an angry reaction from GP groups, who said they had no role in the process and no capacity to take one on.
Ms Martin was then contradicted by her Green Party colleague Minister of State Ossian Smyth who apologised for the misunderstanding and said those who had tested positive should not contact their GP, but instead request a cert through a call centre.
After a day of confusion, it then emerged that the memo presented to Cabinet on Tuesday outlined that the Digital Certs “or other confirmation from a relevant medical practitioner” could be used for booking and entry to premises.
This suggested that either a DCC or some other form of proof affirmed by a medical practitioner could be used to access indoor dining, a circumstance that also seems possible under draft legislation distributed to the Opposition by the Government on Monday.
That states that proof of immunity extends to “any form of written information or proof verifying . . . that the person has recovered from Covid-19.”
On Wednesday afternoon, it was still unclear what role, if any, was envisaged for GPs in issuing DCCs or other proof of infection which might be accepted for the purposes of indoor dining.
Sources suggested that almost all people would access indoor dining with a DCC, obtained after contacting the helpline in the case of recent infection, and that the legislation was written in a way that envisaged access for people with equivalent proofs from overseas, rather than proof of recent infection issued by a GP, or similar medical practitioner, in Ireland.
An implementation group comprised of industry representatives and officials is currently working on the detail of how the system will be run, which will be outlined in regulations and guidelines, while the primary legislation is to be introduced into the Dáil this afternoon.