Taoiseach Micheál Martin has announced the lifting of almost all Covid-19 restrictions telling the Irish people they responded when hit by an unprecedented health emergency saying: “You did what you were asked to do.”
He acknowledged there has been grief at the loss of life but said the public’s “collective efforts have saved thousands of lives”.
Having spoken to the Irish people on “many dark days” he said “today is a good day”.
Mr Martin said Ireland has “weathered the Omicron storm” with the rate of infections now reducing and key indicators having stabilised and going in right direction.
The vaccine programme has “utterly transformed our situation” and the rationale and justification for continuing most of the public health restrictions are no longer there, he said.
“Spring is coming and I don’t know if I have ever looked forward to one as much as this one. Humans are social beings and we Irish are more social than most. As we look forward to this spring, we need to see each other again, we need to see each other smile, we need to sing again.”
At the start of his speech Mr Martin noted that on this day in 1919 the first Dáil met and formally declared the country’s independence.
“As we face into our second century as a free democracy, and as we navigate this new phase of Covid, it is time to be ourselves again,” he said.
Mr Martin’s address to the nation came after the Cabinet agreed to lift almost all Covid-19 restrictions from 6am on Saturday.
Household visits will be permitted with no restrictions, the early closing time for hospitality and events will be scrapped, as will capacity restrictions for outdoor events and indoor events, including weddings.
The same is true for many protective measures including requirements for physical distancing, seated only indoor tables, pods of six for activities, the Covid pass requirement for all venues and activities, and the requirement to maintain contact details.
Nightclubs will be allowed to reopen and a phased return to the office will begin from Monday.
Mr Martin said the recovery of Ireland’s society and economy “is already underway and we will continue to do what is necessary to support it.”
The Cabinet had decided to continue and extend the provision of a number of supports, highlighting the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme, he said.
Mr Martin also said the Government will work with colleagues at a European and International level “to ensure the rapid deployment of vaccines and therapeutics across Africa and the developing world”.
“None of us will be fully safe until we are all safe.”
“There is much to do” he continued. “But today is a good day, and we should all take a moment to appreciate how far we’ve come; to appreciate the effort and sacrifice of those who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe; to remember and appreciate the lives and contribution of those we lost.”
He said the news will be welcomed by many but he is conscious that some people will feel anxiety about re-engaging with others.
“For those who do feel like that, I’d ask you to be open about it, share it.
“We all need to be open with each other, be supportive of each other.
“Mind each other.”
Travel and mask wearing
Mask wearing will still be required in all settings where it is currently regulated for until February 28th, with protective measures in schools and childcare facilities remaining until that date.
Mr Martin said that because of the international situation there are no changes to the current measures in place for travel.
He said the advice for those with symptoms, positive cases and close contacts remains in place.
The remaining measures will be reviewed by the end of February by which time all children aged between 5 and 11 will have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated.
Mr Martin urged parents to engage with their GPs about the vaccines saying they are safe for children.
More broadly he said the unvaccinated and unboosted suffer the most from the virus and he urged people who haven’t had the jabs to get them.
He said: “The pandemic isn’t over. It will still require all of us to be vigilant The changes we are making will likely lead to a temporary rise in infections in the short term but we are advised that the impact of this rise will be limited by the scale of vaccination in the population.”
Mr Martin said: “I can’t promise you there won’t be further twists in this pandemic requiring different decisions in the future but I do know this.
“Solidarity in each other and trust in science has got us to where we are today and will get us through whatever else this virus may throw at us.”
He said the Government’s job is to prepare for any future wave of the disease and hospital and ICU capacity will continue to be expanded.
At a press conference on Friday evening, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said people can look forward cautiously to “a spring and summer of freedom”.
He said the there will be “bumps in the road ahead” but also “confidence if this is not the end it’s the beginning of the end”.
Mr Varadkar, the Minister for Enterprise, said workers and businesses “have been to hell and back” and while restrictions end tomorrow the supports will not.
He said the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) will not be phased out fully until April 5th and this will allow more time for 80,000 people still getting the payment to get their jobs back or find new ones.
The Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) payments to employers will reduce for sectors not impacted by the most recent restrictions until they’re stopped on April 30th.
For hospitality and live entertainment businesses affected by the 8pm curfew EWSS will continue at the higher rate for an extra month until the end of February before being reduced and stopping altogether on May 31st.
Mr Varadkar said there will be no cliff edge but there will have to be an end to the payments.
Minister for Culture and Tourism Catherine Martin said there have been many lost days and weeks “and worse we have lost loved ones”.
However, she said that as a result of the changes announced on Friday young people can go out and meet friends again, can play music, can dance and cheer on their favourite sports team again.
She said there will be a return to full stadiums.
Ms Martin confirmed that there will be a St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin this year and there is €2 million in funding for it.
She said that some nightclubs will “unfortunately” not be able to reopen until Wednesday as they will have to go through the process of getting their special exemption orders under licensing laws from the District Court.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said: “It is important to say the pandemic itself is not over”.
He said there is still a high number of cases and vigilance must remain for variants of concern.
Mr Holohan said there may be an increase in case numbers as a result of the changes – particularly among school-going children.
He said such increases have been seen in other countries but this was taken into account in the advice the National Health emergency Team gave to Government.
Mr Martin was asked if hand-shakes are back.
He replied: “If you’re comfortable and if you feel safe shaking someone’s hand, yes.”