Taoiseach Micheál Martin has announced a “gradual” and “careful” easing of Covid-19 restrictions from next Monday but warned “we are very unlikely to be ever able to say we are rid of this virus completely”.
In a public address on Tuesday at Government Buildings, shortly after the Cabinet signed off on the new plan, Mr Martin praised the public for its efforts in containing the virus, saying Irish people had shown “respect for and trust in science”.
People had saved lives through their actions, he said.
“We kept our head as a country, we stuck together, followed the best advice, did what was asked and looked out for each other.”
The State had never before been confronted with a “public health and economic challenge of this scale,” he added.
The plan, entitled Reframing the Challenge, Continuing Our Recovery and Reconnecting, will see the lifting of almost all restrictions by October 22nd.
From Monday, September 6th, cinemas and theatres can choose between having a maximum of 50 people with a mixture of vaccinated and unvaccinated together inside, or 60 per cent of capacity with vaccinated people only. For outdoor events it can be 75 per cent vaccinated or 50 per cent mixed.
From next week all religious services can be held at 50 per cent capacity regardless of vaccination status.
Coach tours at 50 per cent capacity with protective measures can resume. Conferences, trade fairs and exhibitions involving external audiences can also recommence.
From September 20th, attendance at work “for specific business requirements may commence on a phased and staggered attendance basis”, the plan states.
Also from September 20th, up to 100 people can gather indoors for sports or indoor activities like dance or yoga if all are vaccinated. If not all are vaccinated, people must stay within pods of six. A venue can host more than one pod of six if they have a large enough venue.
Indoor live music events can start with a requirement for audiences and spectators to be fully seated.
The easing of the capacity limit will not apply to weddings, which will have a 100-person cap until October 22nd.
Mandates for physical distancing are set to be scrapped by October 22nd, as well as mask wearing outdoors and indoors in private settings.
Mr Martin said after October 22nd there will still a requirement to wear masks on public transport, in health care setting and for indoor retail.
He stressed the need for personal responsibility and for people not to go to work if they had any Covid-related symptoms.
A winter vaccine booster programme would be announced in the coming weeks.
He said because of the sacrifices people had made a greater proportion of the population had been protected than in many other states. Paying tribute to the compliance of the public a vaccination effort which he said was the “envy of much of the world”, he said: “We are now entering a whole new phase of the pandemic”.
Speaking later on RTÉ’s Prime Time, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the Government had largely followed the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).
However, he acknowledged Nphet “didn’t like the idea” of allowing young people who were not fully vaccinated attend indoor events.
The Government departed from the public health advice in this instance on the grounds that it did not want to split up families attending events, Mr Varadkar said.
He added he did not see October 22nd as “freedom day” but “it’s the first day of a new normal”.
Earlier, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said what was being presented was a "reasonable plan for reopening".
"We also have one of the highest Covid rates in the EU... but we have to give a way to return to normality that is safe and sustainable," he told RTÉ. Details of the proposals are to be worked out with sporting organisations, Fáilte Ireland and other sectors, he added.
The Government is also considering removing certification of immunity or testing as grounds to access services, with the exception of international travel, while restrictions on high-risk activities such as nightclubs are also under consideration for removal from that date.
Minister for Transport and the Environment Eamon Ryan said people must take "personal responsibility" now that there is a high level of vaccination in Ireland. On his way into the Cabinet meeting, he told RTÉ that booster vaccines for the vulnerable and immunocompromised will need to be looked at.
Covid-19 is “not going away”, he said, adding that testing and screening will remain critical. People cannot continuously be expected to refrain from going to work, college, weddings and other events that are important for mental health, he said.
‘Last mile’ payment
Plans are also being developed for a "last mile" payment to be made to people working in sectors, such as the arts, which will not immediately return to full capacity and will take some time for events to be planned and organised.
Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys told Monday night's meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid-19 that it is not a case of "switching the lights back on" for this particular sector.
It is unclear exactly what form the payment will take or the level it will be at, but agreement has been reached in principle on a proposal being discussed by Ms Humphreys and Minister for the Arts Catherine Martin to revert with a level of support and details of those who will qualify.