The end of the pandemic is within grasp if the country can remain vigilant and “continue to make the right choices”, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Friday evening.
In an address to the nation at Government Buildings, Mr Martin said that “after the trauma of the last 15 months, we are finally taking definite steps towards enjoying normal times with friends and loved ones again.”
Announcing the widespread reopening of the economy and society, Mr Martin said: “we’re almost back to a point where we can just enjoy the ordinary extraordinary moments in our lives.”
“The sense of hope, excitement, and relief is palpable. But as we watch what is happening across the globe, we of course know that we must remain vigilant against this terrible virus. We know there have been many twists and turns on this journey.
“I’ve talked many times about the strength that is found and solidarity and how managing the pandemic must be a collective effort. This coming month could be the most important test of that spirit that we have faced since this ordeal began.”
“If we continue to mind each other, if we continue to make the right choices, be vigilant, take our vaccine when our turn comes, if we continue to do all of these things, the end of this is within our grasp,” he said.
Mr Martin asked the public to continue to exercise caution and “to trust the science.” He said that while the Government’s approach has been cautious, “the strategy is working.”
The vaccination portal will now open for everyone over 40 next week, he confirmed.
Furthermore, vaccination take-up is exceptionally high across various age groups.
“By every measure, the Irish people trust the vaccines. In fact, our country enjoys one of the highest levels of trust in the vaccine in the world.
“Almost 100 per cent of our citizens over the age of 70 are now fully vaccinated. This is unsurpassed in the European Union. This strategy is working.”
“Now the challenge is to keep moving forward, safely, remembering all the time our determination to make sure that when we reopen each part of our society and economy, it stays open.”
It is understood that the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly told Cabinet earlier on Friday that the Government is to revise its vaccination target downwards. It had been expected that 82 per cent of adults would be given at least one vaccine by the end of June. This will now be revised to the mid-70 per cent range, it is understood.
Speaking at a briefing following Mr Martin’s announcement, the three Government leaders emphasised the high volume of vaccinations, which were continuing at a rate of 300,000 per week.
Mr Varadkar said that 2.5 million people will be fully vaccinated by the end of July, according to the projections of the High Level Task Force on Covid-19 Vaccination.
“We will move from 20 per cent now [at the end of May] to 60 per cent of the adult population by the end of July. It is a difficult target to achieve but one that we think we can achieve,” he said.
Restaurants, bars, hotels and events
From July 5th indoor service will recommence in restaurants and bars.
The Taoiseach confirmed that from June 2nd, hotels and guesthouses would reopen and that from June 7th, outdoor hospitality would recommence.
On restaurants, the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he understood where the Restaurant Association was coming from with its challenge but the rationale of the Government had always been a phased reopening. That approach, he said, meant that it was outdoor dining first, and then indoor dining.
“They point out the anomaly that hotels are allowed to serve residents in dining rooms but that has always been the case even under Level 5. We have never made people eat their meals in their bedrooms.”
He said that restaurants and bars, even though open for outdoor dining throughout June, would still get paid the weekly Covid Restrictions Support Scheme payment (worth up to €5,000 per week) as if they were closed.
“Then there will be a bullet payment in July,” he said, adding that hotels would not get those payments.
Mr Martin said from June 7th up to 200 people could attend outdoor events in venues with a minimum capacity of 5,000 and 100 could attend other outdoor events. Cinema and theatres can also reopen.
In light of concerns around road safety, there would be a recommencement of theory tests. There will also be an incremental reopen of driver test centres.
“I really want to emphasise one key point. Continued progress is not inevitable. Change brings risk. We still have a journey to go with our vaccination programme, and we are monitoring very closely what impact new variants, especially the B1617 Indian variant has under spread of the virus. But subject to us continuing to make progress, we will move to the next phase of reopening,” he said.
Indoor events will recommence from July 5th with a maximum of 100 attendees in larger venues and 50 in all others.
“We will see a further increase in the numbers attending outdoor events, indoor exercise and sports activities will return and there will be further relaxation on visits to private homes, and up to 50 guests will be able to attend wedding receptions,” Mr Martin said.
Furthermore, from August 5th there will be a further increase in numbers attending indoor events with 200 in larger venues and 100 in all others.
The 50 per cent capacity restriction on public transport will be lifted and up to 100 guests will be able to attend weddings.
“Our direction of travel is clear, and it’s very positive. To continue in this direction, it is important that we all adhere to public health guidelines and make sensible personal decisions.”
Throughout June and July, test matches and concerts will be held around the country.
The Cabinet also agreed to allow fans to attend a number of sports fixtures and music events throughout the summer. These are understood to include the Leinster v Dragons rugby game at the RDS on June 11th.
Fans also may attend another game, Shamrock Rovers v Finn Harps, on the same day, as well as the Cork City v Cabinteely match. The Liberty Insurance Camogie League final at Croke Park on June 20th may also have fans in the stadium.
Spectators could also be present at the Irish Life Health National Senior Championships on June 26th and at the Shamrock Rovers vs Drogheda match on June 25th . Spectators may also attend racing at the Curragh.
The Government’s plan for outdoor gigs is as follows: an outdoor musical festival in the Phoenix Park on the 26th of June, fully seated with 3,500 in attendance. An outdoor music event on the 10th of June in the Iveagh Gardens curated by the National Concert Hall with 500 people in attendance. Outside of Dublin there two more music events planned one on the 26th June at the INEC Club in Killarney which will be a music performance that will be fully seated with 200 people.
From June 7th, a maximum of 100 people can attend matches rising to 200 at venues that can accommodate 5,000 or more.
This will rise from July 5th, to 200 at matches or 500 where there is a capacity of 5,000 or more.
From August, up to 500 spectators can attend matches, or in larger venues 5000 or 25 per cent of capacity, whichever is smaller.
Mr Donnelly said the Cabinet was looking “very carefully” at how to facilitate travel between Ireland and Britain.
On international travel, Mr Martin said: “I understand the pent-up desire of very many people to have a break overseas or to welcome friends and family from abroad. But I also understand very clearly the need to get this right and to make sure that we restore international travel in a safe and sustainable way.
“At my most recent meeting with European leaders last week, we confirmed our support for the European Union digital Covid-19 certificate for travel within the European Union. Today at Government we agreed to fully operate that scheme from the 19th of July. This will facilitate a return to international travel in accordance with clear safety protocols.”
From July 5th, up to three households can gather together with another household regardless of vaccination status.
Passengers will be allowed to travel throughout the EU without facing mandatory hotel quarantine on their return from July 19th.
Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan told a briefing after Mr Martin's announcement that although there will be different regimes for travel from the US and UK to the EU digital green pass system, the "same broad approach will apply".
Mr Ryan said that non-essential travel will reopen from the US and the UK when flights to EU States begin to reopen in mid-July.
Mr Ryan said that both countries would become designated third countries and said the UK was a “very close and important neighbour to us”.
The Minister was speaking at a press conference in Government Buildings on the Cabinet’s decision to reopen society during the course of the summer.
He said concerns had been expressed in Britain in relation to the variants of concern (the Indian variant) that are the dominant strain there.
“We will require people arriving from Great Britain to self-quarantine at home unless they have been fully vaccinated. We will keep this under review and I hope, later in the summer, we will be able to open up further the common travel area we have the privilege of sharing with the UK.”
He said mandatory hotel quarantine would be retained for what he said would be a very small number of countries. Mr Ryan also confirmed that children travelling abroad with parents would require a PCR test in order to get a digital certificate.
“It will only be used in relation to variants of concern,” he said.
Working from home
Mr Varadkar said that the national economic recovery plan announced next week, including €900 million in EU funding, would help to “make sure as many businesses as possible survive the period ahead.”
He said that in relation to some businesses in the events sector, including nightclubs, he understood they would be disappointed they have not yet been allowed to reopen. “They will not be forgotten,” he said.
He said that 25,000 people have left the Pandemic Unemployment Payments in the past week and people were going back to work in big numbers. He said any withdrawal of PUP would be gradual.
Responding to a question from The Irish Times, the Taoiseach confirmed that the public health advice for people to work from home had not changed.
“The public health advice is strongly of the view that people work from home where it is possible. That advice is as strong as ever.”