Hopes rise that rules on outdoor gatherings will be relaxed in February

Large assemblies to include Ireland’s opening Six Nations match at the Aviva

Ireland in action during their recent November Test agains Argentina at the Aviva. The Six Nations opener next month is against Wales. File photograph: Inpho

Ireland in action during their recent November Test agains Argentina at the Aviva. The Six Nations opener next month is against Wales. File photograph: Inpho

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Hopes are rising that restrictions on outdoor gatherings will be relaxed in time for large events next month, including Ireland’s opening Six Nations match against Wales early in February.

Senior Government sources said last night they hope to signal the go-ahead for such events in the weeks ahead, along with a wider easing of restrictions. It is thought likely that the Government will seek to set out a staged lifting of restrictions if advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), which meets on Thursday, is favourable.

Such an approach could mean a reversion in the coming weeks to a situation broadly equivalent to what was in place in November, with hospitality opening for longer and a return to office working more broadly encouraged. In November, premises were able to operate until midnight.

It is understood nightclubs will follow later, but the gap “shouldn’t be drawn out”, said one senior source.

A meeting of Coalition party leaders last night was said to be optimistic in tone.

The growing optimism is being fuelled by sharply falling numbers of daily Covid-19 cases, with just 6,239 new infections confirmed yesterday. Some 1,006 people were in hospital with Covid-19, of whom 97 were in intensive care.

Hospital Report

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU
218 29

While no specific event is being targeted, the first major sporting event in February is the rugby fixture at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and his Fine Gael counterpart Leo Varadkar are both believed to favour relaxing restrictions, which put a limit at outdoor events of 5,000 fans or 50 per cent of capacity, whichever is smaller.

A larger crowd at the Six Nations match would also likely entail significant numbers of Wales fans arriving in Dublin.

If an earlier resumption of larger crowds were permitted, the GAA’s national league fixtures over the last weekend in January could come into play.

Government figures indicated last night they would like to be able to give indications to stakeholders this week. However, with Nphet only meeting on Thursday, the Cabinet may not consider formal decisions on changed restrictions until next week. This would make relaxations unlikely before the end of the month, given the need to plan and give a lead-in time to sectors before reopening. Cabinet may yet meet sooner, however.

Coalition sources believe the situation in the State’s hospitals and the current data on the pandemic warrant unwinding of restrictions, with a growing belief the peak of the Omicron wave has passed.

Mandated 8pm closing time

However, Government sources expect to proceed to the end of January with the current set of restrictions in place, meaning hospitality will continue to operate under the mandated 8pm closing time until the end of the month.

Hospitality industry representatives have been calling for an end to early closing hours, and Government backbenchers, who return to Leinster House this week after the Christmas recess, are also likely to press for a lifting of restrictions.

One aim is to have legal restrictions, with the possible exception of mask mandates where they are a legal requirement, phased out by the end of March.

Meanwhile, the former chair of Science Foundation Ireland and chief scientific officer to the Government, Prof Mark Ferguson, has stepped down from Nphet in line with finishing his other roles. He was appointed last winter and also oversaw an expert group report on the use of antigen testing.

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