A decision by the Government to overhaul the allocation of Covid-19 vaccines has sparked anger and concern as the Cabinet agreed to begin easing lockdown restrictions from mid-April.
The Cabinet on Tuesday agreed the first general loosening of Covid-19 restrictions since the State entered Level 5 last December. From April 12th, the 5km travel restriction will be lifted so people can travel within their own county or within 20km of their home if they are crossing county boundaries.
Main points – What the Cabinet has decided today:
From April 12th
- 5km travel limit extended county-wide and within 20km radius
- Partial return to construction from mid-April
From April 19th
- GAA senior county training resumes
From April 26th
- Golf and tennis may resume
- Zoos and places of heritage to open
- Outdoor training for under-18s to resume
- Funeral attendance to rise to 25
- Museums and galleries to start reopening
- Click and collect retail services to resume
- Hairdressers to resume
Two households will be allowed to meet outdoors, more than 14,000 construction workers involved in building houses will return to employment and there will be a full return to school for remaining secondary school children.
The national vaccination programme is to be changed to an age-based system, once those aged 70 years and older, the vulnerable and people with underlying conditions are immunised.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), which represents primary school teachers, said it would be seeking an emergency meeting with the Department of Education “to protest strongly against any downgrading of our profession on the vaccination list”.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the move would simplify and accelerate the vaccination programme.
“There are many, many genuine and justifiable arguments that can be made in respect of many professions, if we are honest, but we want to make sure we can get vaccinations rolled out as quickly as we possibly can so we can get greater protection to those who need it most,” he said.
Mr Martin also said that close to three million vaccine doses will be administered by the end of May, rising to nearly five million doses by early July and six million doses by the end of that month.
“We are on the final stretch of this terrible journey,” Mr Martin said, adding that by the summer businesses and public services will safely reopen.
It comes as the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) warned the Government in a letter that the country is in a “precarious” place in relation to the prevalence of Covid-19.
In a letter to Government, the acting chief medical officer Ronan Glynn said that the level of infection is “substantially higher than when restrictions were eased after previous waves of infection - approximately twice that experienced in early December 2020, and 50 times that in late June 2020.”
The team also warned that the dominance of the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant means that “for similar levels of close social contact viral transmissions and effective reproduction number…will be 30-70 per cent greater than in 2020.”
The reproductive number is already at or above 1, they warned.
“The high starting point of 600 cases per day means that case numbers rise rapidly to over 2,000 per day within 4 weeks.”
“Unfortunately, the significant ‘headroom’ that was available last summer when case counts were very low isn’t available now, and any increase in transmission will have significant impacts in a short space of time,” the team warned Government.
New modelling from Nphet also suggests that vaccinations will quickly and significantly reduce risk over a short period of time from May 2021 to August 2021. The modelling shows that vaccinations will reduce mortality when those over 70 are fully protected but will have a smaller effect on hospital and critical care numbers under the wider population is vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Taoiseach also announced on Tuesday that the Government will examine at the end of April the possible reopening of retail and hairdressers in May. Then, at the end of May, Ministers will assess whether the reopening of hotels, B&Bs and guesthouses will be possible the following month in June.
The Government has also announced that two people who are fully vaccinated may now meet up indoors, provided it is a fortnight or more since they received their second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that changing the approach to vaccination categories by age cohorts was in deference to the evidence.
“We are going with science and we are going with the medicine on this,” he said. “If you look at this from a scientific point of view…say you have a 35-year-old garda, or a 35-year-old teacher; are they at more risk or less risk than a 60-year-old factory worker, or a 60-year-old retail worker? It’s actually the 60-year-old that’s at more risk.”
However, he played down the notion that Covid-19 variants, notably the so-called Brazilian variant, might scupper the restriction easing plans set out by the Taoiseach.
“One of the concerns we have about variants is that they may be vaccine resistant and that is a real concern. But the growing evidence, certainly in relation to the MRNA vaccines, is that they are effective,” he said, adding that this was recent information.
"The variant that is dominant here in Ireland at the moment is the B117 variant which is very transmissible and that's perhaps one of the reasons as to why the other variants haven't grown so much."
He also said whether or not the US, France and Germany would be added to a list of countries from where arrivals must hotel quarantine was “under consideration”.
“We need to work out a few things,” he said on RTÉ’s Prime Time on Tuesday night. “Do we have the hotels for example? What is the exit strategy? Some of the countries are in the EU so there’s issues around free movement which we need to sort out.”
Meanwhile, an expert group convened by the Government has recommended the widespread use of rapid antigen tests, including the potential for mass rollout in schools by September of this year, although the group was split on the role of such tests in reopening society and economy.