A sustained rise in Covid case numbers would endanger plans to reopen construction and other parts of society on April 5th, political and public health leaders have said.
The warning comes amid growing concern over rising virus cases, with recent gains at peril following three days where total new cases were about or above 600.
On Friday night, a further 646 cases and 10 deaths were reported.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the hope is still that rules limiting construction, outdoor activities and travel restrictions can be eased next month. However, he told Virgin Media "reopening on April 5th of any sort won't be possible if we go in the wrong direction in terms of case numbers".
The Taoiseach told RTÉ that "There is no point in opening up and having to close again.
“We have successfully partially reopened the schools, but we will keep an eye on those numbers and it’s the journey between now and closer to April 5th that will determine the announcement on the 5th in terms of what we can do for April.”
Meanwhile, Prof Philip Nolan, a senior member of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) told The Irish Times that a rise in case numbers could lead to fundamental changes to the plan.
“We are at a particular juncture, the disease could go either way. I remain optimistic we can bring it back under control but if we can’t, and if case numbers start to rise again, we’d have to re-evaluate the position entirely.”
Senior coalition sources said the State was at a “crossroads” this weekend, with extra effort needed by the whole population. “Nothing is guaranteed”, a source said, adding there was a “need to reverse” current case counts.
While some key indicators of the disease remain encouraging, recent case numbers have caused nervousness. Work to identify patterns of transmission has not identified a definitive cause behind the recent reversal, sources said.
Government sources briefed on Nphet concerns said uncertainty over the new variants of the virus was at the heart of the fears. “We don’t know what level of cases is safe,” said one person who has seen communications from Nphet. There was, the source said, “huge uncertainty”. Several sources agree that briefing in recent days has become “alarming”.
There is an awareness in Government the next phase will be the last extension of the lockdown, but also that some restrictions must be eased in early April, as public patience with lockdown is fraying.
Easing restrictions “all depends on the numbers over the next few weeks”, sources said, as experts will be watching carefully the impact of the wider reopening of primary schools this coming Monday.
Hospital admissions, intensive care numbers and the number of deaths were improving, but the daily cases were “a worry as it is not clear that they are still falling”, a Government source said.
There is a view among some Ministers, however, that it would be unrealistic to expect figures to drop as low as they did after the first lockdown due to variants and the fact more parts of society are already open.
Meanwhile, the Health Service Executive is to be asked to implement new advice on the use of AstraZeneca in the over-70s. Advice from the acting chief medical officer, Dr Ronan Glynn, is said to largely mirror that given by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee. Sources indicated that while no decisions have been taken, the likely outcome is that mRNA vaccines like those from Pfizer and Moderna will still largely be given to the cohort. AstraZeneca may allow more room for manoeuvre if there are shortfalls or difficulties reaching some patients, but sources indicated fundamental changes are unlikely.
The Taoiseach on Friday spoke to the chief executive of Johnson & Johnson, which had its one-shot vaccine approved for use in the EU this week. He also spoke by telephone on Friday to AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot to discuss the shortfall in deliveries of the vaccine. However, it is understood there will be little comfort for the Irish side in the discussions, with Mr Soriot indicating that the company would have difficulty meeting its targets for delivery in the second quarter of the year.
Mr Martin said he would also have a conversation with US president Joe Biden during their online meeting to mark St Patrick’s Day about Covid-19 and the global vaccination rollout. It has been reported that millions of AstraZeneca vaccines are in storage in America as the country has not yet approved its use.
Difficulties with supply are impacting plans for the next phase of vaccine rollout.
On Friday night, the HSE wrote to GPs saying the planned delivery of vaccines next week for 75-79 year olds was being “limited” so that available supplies could be focused on vaccinating 80-84 year olds.
About 100 out of 500 GP practices that are scheduled to receive deliveries would be impacted, it warned.
Under changes to take effect from Monday, the allocation of Pfizer vaccines to GPs will be based on the number of patients they have who are aged over 85 and over 80 and are due vaccinations “with the aim of completing the cohorts”.
No further shipments of Moderna vaccine are expected until the end of March, the HSE said.