Covid vaccine ramp-up to see 80% of adults get dose by June - Martin

Easing of restrictions contingent on continued suppression of virus, says Taoiseach

An Taoiseach Micheál Martin has confirmed that Ireland will remain under Level 5 restrictions until April 5th, although a phased reopening of schools is planned from March 1st. Video: RTÉ

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Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced an extension of Level 5 restrictions as expected Tuesday night but promised an acceleration of the vaccination programme that would see more than 80 per cent of adults receive their first dose by the end of June.

Insisting that “the end is truly in sight”, Mr Martin held out hope of a cautious reopening in April and widespread vaccination by the summer, but warned that the easing of restrictions was contingent on continued suppression of the virus.

The Government yesterday published a new plan, called the Path Ahead, charting a cautious approach to exiting the lockdown which has been in place since Christmas.

Schools will begin reopening next Monday, but not all students will be back in classrooms until the middle of April and only if case numbers continue to fall, hospital and the ICU admissions decline and the R number – the number of people a person with the virus goes on to infect – remains below one. The impact of next week’s return to schools for Leaving Cert students and younger primary school children would be assessed continuously, the Taoiseach said.

But Mr Martin declined to supply any detail on the benchmarks that would allow reopening to continue and the deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) would monitor not only the rates of the disease but rates of compliance with the continuing restrictions.

Dr Glynn warned against interpreting the reopening of schools as a signal that “the brakes are off”.

“That wouldn’t be acceptable,” he said.

In a televised address to the nation followed by a press conference at Government Buildings, Mr Martin sought to balance the promise of further reopening with exhorting people to continue to stay at home and observe the restrictions for a further six weeks. The Government will review the restrictions at the end of March, he said. “When we reopen things we want them to stay open.”

He said that by the end of March, 1.25 million vaccines will have been administered, with the three following months seeing a million doses given in each. By the end of June, 82 per cent of adults would have received at least one dose, with up to 60 per cent of adults being fully vaccinated with two doses.

Enhanced testing and tracing

Mr Martin said reports yesterday that there would be significant shortfalls in the supply from vaccine maker AstraZeneca to EU countries in the second quarter were already factored into the Government’s projections for the vaccine rollout.

While Mr Martin sought to strike a positive note, there are warnings within the document not only about the dour financial situation facing the State, but about the future path of the disease.

The new plan warns that notwithstanding vaccination, “there are real risks we may face the same challenges” in controlling Covid next winter as we did this winter. It says uncertainty over the impact of vaccines and variants, as well as increased transmission of other viruses during winter placing a “double pressure” on hospitals, lapses in social-distancing measures, and fatigue driving down adherence may drive further difficulties.

It is understood Nphet has also warned the Government that the disease may be growing again among young adults, and that there is a considerable risk of a further wave if restrictions are eased before cases are driven down and vaccination has an impact.

The plan also sketches out a future with enhanced testing and tracing, and a wider role for antigen tests, with an “aggressive testing strategy and a low threshold for intervention”, greater emphasis on “real-time and integrated data and intelligence”.

More supports will be made available for those restricting movements or isolating, but information on timelines is sparse in the plan.

Welfare supports

The plan also says that pandemic welfare supports will have to be rolled back once the vaccination campaign gathers pace as the country’s finances cannot cope with the current level of spending beyond the “very short term”.

The plan says that while the Government will extend pandemic supports until June, this will absorb most of the contingency funding provided for in the last budget and “a clear trajectory to reduce this level of spending will be necessary as soon as we enter the recovery phase”.

In a blunt warning, the new framework also says that “the domestic tax base is not sufficient to cope with this amount of spending beyond the very short term”.

“In order to ensure fiscal sustainability, therefore, it will be necessary to roll back these temporary expenditure measures once vaccine rollout has progressed and the economy reopened.”

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