After almost two years of restrictions to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, social and economic life begins to return to normal today after the Government confirmed last night it would quickly remove most pandemic measures.
In a televised address from Government Buildings last night, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that while he had often delivered bad news from there in the past, “today is a good day”.
Earlier, at a special Cabinet meeting, Ministers agreed to immediately apply advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) which had told the Government there was no longer a public health rationale for the continuation of most restrictions.
From 6am this morning, the great majority of public health restrictions will be discontinued. Pubs and restaurants will be able to return to normal opening hours today, while nightclubs will be permitted to open tonight, though most will need to obtain a late licence from the courts and will not open until Wednesday.
The rules limiting attendances at all indoor and outdoor events are discontinued, meaning that major sporting events will proceed with full capacity. The requirement for digital Covid certificates is also gone. A phased return to the office will begin on Monday.
However, some rules will remain in place. Mask wearing will still be required in all settings where it is currently enforced until February 28th. There are no changes to the current measures in place for travel, while the advice for those with symptoms, positive cases and close contacts remains in place. The remaining measures will be reviewed by the end of February.
At an upbeat press conference following his televised address Mr Martin said: “Spring is coming and I don’t know if I have ever looked forward to one as much as this one . . . As we look forward to this spring, we need to see each other again.”
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar announced a number of changes to the business and worker supports, culminating in their phasing out in the first half of the year.
A planned reduction in the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme payments to employers will be postponed until March but the support will be wound down gradually after that. The pandemic unemployment payment will be closed for new applicants today and phased out over the next two months.
Mr Varadkar said there will be “no cliff edge” but there will have to be an end to the payments.He also said that workers who do not wish to return to the office have no automatic right to remain working at home. “If your contract of employment says that you are required to work in a particular location, then that’s your contractual obligation,” he said.
Minister for Arts Catherine Martin said there will be a St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin this year and there is €2 million in funding for it.
Both the Taoiseach and State chief medical officer Tony Holohan stressed the pandemic was “not over”. However, asked if the public health emergency was over, Mr Martin replied “yes, the emergency is over in terms of those restrictions”. He said that the Government would seek to “embed into the health system” the capacity to deal with future outbreaks or new variants.
What if you have symptoms?
Dr Holohan said an increase in case numbers could be expected as restrictions are lifted, a trend that he said had been seen in other countries. But he said that Nphet had “dialled that in in the advice we have given to Government”. He stressed the “critical importance of staying out of circulation when you have symptoms”.
There will not be another meeting of Nphet for another four weeks, he said. Some senior public health figures agree the time may be coming to move away from the Nphet structure – to “thank people for their efforts”, said one , with the return to the workplace an “ideal time for that”.
Mr Martin was careful to warn that “we may have to come back again” with further restrictions if new variants emerge or the situation deteriorates but the mood in Government Buildings suggested that Ministers believe the era of onerous restrictions is now finished.
Hospitality businesses greeted the news with enthusiasm. The Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI), which represents pubs outside Dublin, said that “pubs can get back to the business of what they do best – serving the public in a warm, safe and friendly environment”.
“The removal of all restrictions this weekend is the green light for pubs to get back to doing what they do best and I know for a fact they can’t wait,” said VFI chief executive Pádraig Cribben.