Taoiseach Micheál Martin has told his parliamentary party he acknowledges people are “fed up”but warned that progress against Covid is “fragile”, flagging concerns that recent referrals for swabbing had surged.
He told colleagues that easing of restrictions will involve outdoor activities, but said the progress, however, was “fragile”. He flagged concerns over a recent increase in referrals for Covid swabbing, saying they were up by 42 per cent, emphasising the need to protect the most vulnerable.
According to sources at the meeting, Mr Martin said that by the end of April Ireland will be in a "different position", asking people to "stick with it" for another number of weeks.
He told the meeting that by mid April, most people over 70 will have their first dose and most will have their second dose by mid May.
Responding to questions from Offaly TD Barry Cowen, he told the meeting that the target of 80 percent of people having their first shot by the end of June still stands.
Mr Cowen asked whether the target still stands in light of vaccinator recruitment delays, communication issues and supply issues , adding that it would be “disappointing” if the targets, which he described as “bold and profound”, were missed.
Sources at the meeting said the Taoiseach told the parliamentary party that digital vaccine certificates will be discussed at EU level over the next few days, but said there are issues around civil liberties and policy implications need to be considered.
Mr Martin told colleagues that he wanted to avoid speculation about next week’s announcement of restrictions to be eased, but said he “knows people are fed up”.
He pointed to relative gains made in the fight against Covid-19 since Christmas, with cases, ICU and other indicators all down. However, he said that B117, the variant which accounts for almost all cases in Ireland, “thrives” indoors, saying any easing of restrictions will involve outdoor activities.
Mr Martin came under pressure over ongoing restrictions, with Minister of State Niall Collins and Cormac Devlin among those who called for an extension to the 5km rule, safe outdoor activities to resume, and church services to be considered for reopening.
Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath told the meeting that he shared his colleagues views on the need to facilitate outdoor activities and children’s sports.
Echoing Mr Martin, he said by the end of April almost everyone at serious risk will have had their first vaccine. He said he is hopeful case numbers can be contained in the next few weeks.
Mr McGrath told the meeting that he acknowledged sectors need an indication of when they can reopen, adding that his hope was this can be finalised when vaccine supplies settle down in the coming weeks.
Several TDs and Senators including Jim O'Callaghan and Lisa Chambers called for a medium-term plan or road map for restrictions being lifted to be published once vaccine supplies settled down; both also criticised the 5km limit saying it should be gotten rid of.
Speaking as news broke of talks on vaccines between the European Union and the United Kingdom, Mr Martin said that he welcomed talks to ensure there is "reciprocity" between the two, and said that the State was committed to the single market, promising Ireland will "oppose protectionism".
He said that the importance of supply chains “cannot be overstated” and said there cannot be “barriers to the production of vaccines”.
Elsewhere, Kildare North TD James Lawless and Dublin MEP Barry Andrews gave a presentation to the parliamentary party arguing that there was a risk to foreign direct investment arising from a perception that the Data Protection Commissioner is "ineffective".
Mr Lawless warned colleagues that the DPC had to start acting and imposing sanctions on big tech firms, saying if it failed to do so, other member states would no longer agree to Ireland being European HQ for the regulation of big tech firms. This in turn could pave the way for Ireland losing European HQs of firms; the Taoiseach responded saying there are "wider games" where Europe tries to undermine advantages with multinationals.
Mr Andrews told the meeting that the issue was getting attention in the European Parliament with the DPC regime in the spotlight.
Minister of State Niall Collins said it was “totally unacceptable” the passport office is not operating at full capacity; he also said the gardaí and fire personnel should be prioritised for vaccination.
Mr Collins also said people will want to do outdoor activities like walking, fishing and surfing, and may want to travel to a neighbouring county to do it. He said people would be underwhelmed by a move to a 10km travel restriction.
Jackie Cahill, the Tipperary TD raised concerns about the impact of the climate action bill on the agriculture sector, and also raised point-to-point racing. He said it was important from an economic point of view, and said that racecourses could be used under HRI protocols to allow races to take place.
He warned that farming could be used as a scape goat for climate change, saying that Irish farmers were the most sustainable producers of dairy in the world.
The Taoiseach also told Deputy Paul McAuliffe that the Government is considering an approach led by planning, investment and development – so called "Rapid" schemes – to help tackle crime, social and economic, and educational disadvantage in communities such as Ballymun.