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Easing of Covid restrictions continues as decision on mask mandates looms

Inside Politics: Nphet to discuss protective measures in primary and secondary schools

Good morning,

It looks set to be yet another significant day in the march out of Covid-19 restrictions. The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) meets at 10am to discuss the future of mask mandates where they remain, as well as protective measures in primary and secondary schools.

One of the most visible aspects of this will be masking in schools, which remains as advice for those from third class up, even after the requirement to do so in many other settings has fallen away.

The current advice was drawn up just before the Omicron wave hit, and was in fact part of the last swathe of interventions that had been designed to curb the Delta wave that threatened the country before Christmas.

Part of the rationale at the time was that eligible children had not yet had the chance to be vaccinated – something that is no longer the case. The prevalence of Omicron, and the differences between how it spreads compared to Delta, will also factor into the discussions. Other protective measures currently in place in primary and secondary schools will also be discussed.

Wider legal mandates for masks, which currently exist on public transport and a variety of public and retail spaces, are also up for debate, with suggestions that they could all be replaced by simple advice, or that a legal requirement could stay in a very few limited settings.

Meanwhile, work is going on behind the scenes on the future of the test and trace and vaccination systems. Senior officials and political advisers were told yesterday that the disease is performing as expected, and that harm is reducing, so it looks like there are few barriers remaining to removing a lot of the restrictions still in place. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some opposition.

The public health doctors have not enjoyed the confidence of many in the teaching profession for some time, ever since the decision to abandon contact tracing in schools last year. Yesterday, teachers unions argued masks should be retained in schools, while Norma Foley said she would immediately scrap them if Nphet advised it.

There could be one more showdown on the way – but not between public health advisers and the Government – with the politicians fighting with unions instead. Perhaps another sign of a return to normality.

We cover the likely direction of travel here.

Meanwhile, there is skin and hair flying over the future of the State's Sláintecare programme, which was up for discussion at the health committee on Wednesday. New documents obtained by David Cullinane, the Sinn Féin health spokesman, show the discontent that pre-empted last year's resignation of Laura Magahy, the top official charged with delivering the programme. We cover that here.

While our report on a fiery meeting of the Oireachtas health committee is here.

Elsewhere on the front page, our lead story covers off a planning move by the Dublin archdiocese that raises wider questions about the future of the church, the housing crisis and the forces that will shape the next generation of development in the capital. Arthur Beesley's story is here.

And his backgrounder is here.

The front page is completed by Dan McLaughlin's latest dispatch from Kyiv, as millions of Ukrainians raised their national flag on the country's first Unity Day.

Best reads

In light of ongoing debate on Sláintecare, Sam Coulter Smith's thought-provoking piece on how the voluntary hospitals fit into the new puzzle is here.

Naomi O'Leary has a pressing article on Irish neutrality, and the questions posed by the Ukrainian crisis.

Newton Emerson on how Paul Givan's resignation led to fleeting moment of galvanised political action in Stormont.

Miriam Lord takes in the unique rhythms of the Seanad, where Lithuanian fishmongers, new ambassadors and Michelin Star dining loped across the day's business. Charming.

And speaking of fine dining, we hope our readers will tolerate us diverting them momentarily from more serious matters of State, and towards the Irish Times complete guide to Ireland's Michelin-starred restaurants.

Playbook

Nphet meets in the morning around 10am. On the political side, it's oral questions for Heather Humphreys in the Dáil at 9am, followed by Helen McEntee at 10.30am and leaders' questions from Sinn Féin, Labour, the Regional Group and the Independent Group at midday. Statements on the National retrofitting scheme and the second stage of the protected disclosures bill take up most of the afternoon, before topical issues at teatime. There's a private members' bill in the evening on hospital parking.

The full schedule is here.

The Seanad will take the committee and remaining stages of the Life Saving equipment bill, asking it a specific offence to interfere with, well, life saving equipment. That is at 1.15pm. Full schedule is here.

It's a full agenda for the Public Accounts Committee, which is hearing from officials in the Department of Housing all morning. There's not a huge amount of headline-grabbing fare in the rest of the committees, but the joint committee on disability matters will hear from advocates on aligning education with the UN convention on the rights of persons with disability. That is at 9.45am. Full schedule can be found here.

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