Taoiseach Micheál Martin has confirmed the Cabinet has agreed to reimpose Level 5 restrictions, with some modifications, due to the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases.
Mr Martin said the Government was acting "quickly and aggressively" in response to rising infection rates. He said it was responsible to proceed on the assumption that the new variant of Covid-19 was already in Ireland.
It is understood the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) warned the Government that case numbers would surge in the coming days, exceeding 900 per day by Tuesday. The growth in infections is now running at 10 per cent a day, which if it continued unchecked would threaten to overwhelm the health service within a few weeks.
The restrictions will be reviewed on January 12th, but Tánaiste Leo Varadkar warned that they could be in place for months to come.
Restaurants and pubs serving food will close at 3pm on Christmas Eve. Hairdressers and personal services will close from Christmas Eve.
Hotels will be permitted to open for Christmas, after which they will be permitted to provide services to guests only.
Mr Martin said schools would also stay open.
Non-essential retail will be permitted to stay open, but shops will be asked not to hold sales. Gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools will remain open, but only for individual exercise. People will be allowed train outdoors, but only in pods of 15 or fewer. No sports matches can take place apart from those at elite level.
Visits from two households will be allowed until St Stephen’s Day, but that will then be reduced to one household until December 31st, and home visits will be banned completely in the new year.
Travel between counties will be banned from St Stephen’s Day, but people who have already travelled for Christmas will not be asked to return home. However, once they return home after their visit, no new inter-county travel can take place.
Christmas religious services can take place, but services will move online after December 25th. Churches will remain open for private prayer.
Travel restrictions from Britain will remain in place until at least December 31st.
‘The hope is real’
The Taoiseach said extra financial supports will be available for those business that have to close.
“The hope is real. There is light at the end of this tunnel. Vaccines are on the way,” said Mr Martin.
The first vaccinations in the Republic will take place on December 30th, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said. About 10,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are due to be available after Christmas.
He said the next shipment would be the first week in January which would contain “hundreds of thousands of doses”.
The moves to tighen restrictions again follow a dramatic change of mood in Government in recent days and come in response to a surge in infections and warnings from public health experts that case numbers will rise further this week and that we are in the throes of a third wave.
“The one thing which remains absolutely consistent about this virus is that it is potentially deadly and if it is left to spread unchecked it will reach the most vulnerable and they will pay a heavy price,” the Taoiseach said. “Unfortunately in the last week we have seen extraordinary growth in the spread of the virus.
"This is the same pattern that we have seen in the United Kingdom and across Europe. Just this morning figures suggest that we may now be seeing a daily growth rate of approximately 10 per cent, Mr Martin said.
“This is very obviously a source of serious concern. It is simply not sustainable.
“While we do not yet have firm evidence that the new more virulent strain of the Covid virus is in our country, the rate of growth over the last week tells me that the safest and most responsible thing to do is to proceed on the assumption that it is already here.”
Mr Varadkar urged older people once again to shield themselves. “One of the real concerns that we have at the moment is that unlike the second wave, the virus seems to be affecting older people in quite high numbers and that is causing us enormous concern,” Mr Varadkar told a news conference at Government Buildings on Tuesday, comparing the situation to the deadlier first wave in March. “Because what is very likely to happen over the next couple of days, particularly over Christmas, is that younger people who have been out socialising, perhaps carrying the virus, will then mix with older people over Christmas and that is a recipe for disaster.”
Speaking on his way into the Cabinet meeting, Mr Donnelly said public health doctors and infectious-disease doctors were deeply concerned at how quickly the virus had been spreading in recent weeks and about the new variant of the disease identified in the UK.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan had recommended a return to Level 5 restrictions and "that's what will be considered" by the Cabinet, he said.
The “job right now” was to keep people alive and safe, he said. The best way to do that was to slow the virus down and get the vaccination programme up and running quickly.
“On Christmas Day, an awful lot of people in every county in this country are going to be sitting down with their families and having a Christmas Day, who otherwise wouldn’t have been if this virus had been let out of control.”