An expansive lifting of Covid-19 restrictions has been announced by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who said Ireland had “kept our head as a country”, followed the best health advice and stuck together during the worst of the pandemic.
While Mr Martin stressed that the Government would not hesitate to “respond quickly” should a sharp increase in infections threaten to overwhelm hospitals, the latest reopening plan, if implemented as envisaged, will see almost all restrictions removed by October 22nd.
After the measures were approved at a Cabinet meeting, Mr Martin said in a televised address from Government Buildings that “the time is now right to begin the move from regulation and widespread restrictions on people’s personal freedom to an approach primarily defined by public health advice, personal behaviour, judgment and responsibility”.
As expected, the Taoiseach set out a plan for a phased lifting of the remaining restrictions. Public transport will revert to full capacity from Wednesday, and next Monday will bring an easing of limits on indoor and outdoor events and religious services.
There will be further changes on September 20th, when offices will begin to reopen. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he expected people to embrace “blended working”, dividing their time between home and the workplace.
From October 22nd, rules on physical distancing and mask-wearing in most circumstances will lapse, though face coverings will still be required on public transport, in healthcare settings and for indoor retail. A review of the need for masks in classrooms has been requested.
The latest advice sent from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to Government last week contains stark warnings about the dangers Ireland still faces from Covid-19.
Even with the vaccination campaign effectively completed, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan warned that the Delta variant posed a “substantial threat” and would circulate “extensively” in the period ahead.
Modelling suggests there could be 3,000-5,000 cases per day in September in central scenarios, with 750-1,300 people hospitalised with the disease and 150-250 needing critical care.
Nphet on Tuesday reported a further 1,382 cases and said that 355 Covid-19 patients were being treated in hospital, including 54 in intensive care.
Citing past experience of the virus, Dr Holohan said he could not “fully rule out” the reintroduction of restrictions in the future. He outlined an extensive series of criteria that should be met before moving to the next phase.
These included a target of “at least” 90 per cent of over-16s being vaccinated, an absence of new variants of concern and for indicators such as the numbers in hospital and intensive care to be under control.
Dr Holohan advised that the Government should proceed with a range of changes similar to those announced on Tuesday – including many due in October – but that the restrictions should only be removed “when all . . . the criteria have been met”.
Government sources said the path that the Coalition had chosen was “different not divergent” from Nphet’s advice and that any variations were “slight”.
Public health sources indicated their initial assessment was the reopening plan seemed “appropriately phased and cautious”, but that nervousness persisted, especially around school reopening. The impact of resumption of education is expected to be visible around the middle of September.