Echoes of first lockdown as tighter Covid restrictions on everyday activities expected

Cabinet expected to sign off on plans that include sweeping additional travel measures

Taoiseach Micheal Martin has addressed a post cabinet meeting press conference where he announced details of the latest Covid-19 restrictions, including the closure of schools and non essential construction work. Video: RTE News Now

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The Cabinet is expected to sign off on plans today to close schools and the majority of construction activity until the end of the month.

Party leaders, Ministers and senior health officials met for more than six hours on Tuesday. They subsequently agreed to recommend new restrictions including sweeping additional travel measures that will mean every passenger arriving into the Republic from any country will have to provide a negative Covid-19 test from the previous 72 hours.

A ban on travel from Britain and South Africa is expected to be lifted this coming Saturday. But passengers must provide a negative PCR test [used to detect the presence of an antigen] from the previous 72 hours and isolate for 14 days.

This requirement will then be rolled out to all incoming passengers.

The Cabinet Covid-19 subcommittee also heard that the new United Kingdom variant of Covid-19 now accounts for 25 per cent of all sampled tests.

A full Cabinet meeting will be held on Wednesday where Ministers are expected to agree the closure of schools until the end of January, except for services for pupils with special needs.

Construction will be closed until the end of the month with exceptions for social housing, urgent repairs and critical projects.

In retail, the click and collect service is likely to be suspended in what will be a big blow for the sector. In relation to childcare, creches will remain open for essential and frontline workers.

Government sources said that what will be announced will be almost the same as the first nationwide lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic last year. Public health experts are keen to reduce mobility and this is what lies behind recommendations to close schools, construction and to suspend click-and-collect services.

While schools are expected to remain closed until the end of the month, the Government is expected to keep special schools and special classes open for thousands of children with special needs.

There are about 16,000 children in special classes in mainstream schools and in special schools, staffed by several thousand teachers and special needs assistants.

A proposal to provide supports for a further 8,000 children with additional needs in mainstream schools – but who are not in special classes – is being examined, according to sources.

Ministers have said it remains their “firm intention” to hold the Leaving Cert next summer.

However, several contingency options are on the table, according to sources. These include pushing back dates for project work, oral exams and the written exams themselves. No decisions have been made at this stage and a meeting with education stakeholders on the State exams is due to take place next week.

What about the UK virus variant?

Meanwhile, it is understood that data gathered by the National Public Health Emergency Team shows that the prevalence of the UK Covid-19 mutation grew from about 9 per cent in samples analysed in the week before Christmas, to just under 13 per cent in Christmas week and to 25 per cent the following week.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the latest evidence, while based on small sample sizes, nonetheless suggests a “substantial and growing presence” of the variant. He said the evidence is that it is “far more contagious than anything we have dealt with so far”.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly: at the centre of the storm over the Taoiseach and Tánaiste’s public annoyance over learning at the last minute that the National Public Health Emergency Team was recommending an escalation to Level-5 lockdown. Photograph: Julien Behal
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly: UK Covid-19 mutation “far more contagious than anything we have dealt with so far”. File photograph: Julien Behal

“Regardless of any additional measures that may be taken, the message to all of us is the same: stay at home except for essential journeys,” he said.

Despite another day of near record figures and 17 further deaths, there are some signs the exponential rise in infections is being arrested.

The average number of contacts per person fell to 3.7 on Monday, from six a week earlier, thereby drastically reducing the potential for onward transmission of the virus. Health Service Executive sources described the reduction as “significant” and said it reflected the end of Christmas period and a dramatic change in the public atmosphere as case numbers soared.

At 840, the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital is almost at the peak of 881 during the first surge last spring.

HSE chief executive Paul Reid said the health service is under “real threat” and GP services are under “relentless strain”.

Meanwhile the 5km travel limit will remain the same and will not be reduced to 2km.

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