Late April or May before lockdown eases with month of low cases needed before change

Daily cases need to fall to 100 by mid-March and be maintained for easing of restrictions, according to sources

A deserted Liffey Street and Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin on Thursday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

A deserted Liffey Street and Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin on Thursday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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Level 5 restrictions will not be eased until very low Covid-19 case numbers are sustained for up to four weeks, according to multiple senior Government sources. Such a scenario could see the wider reopening of society, beyond schools and construction, pushed back until late April or early May.

The concept of a “pause”, where no easing takes place until numbers stay at a consistent level for a few weeks, is used in New Zealand and Australia and is viewed favourably by a number of Ministers as an effective indicator that it is safe to lift restrictions.

The “cautious and conservative” approach enunciated by Taoiseach Micheál Martin in recent days is now widely accepted across all three Government parties. Ministers including the Taoiseach have accepted mistakes were made before Christmas, when measures were relaxed too early .

Ministers have been reluctant to give timescales due to the unpredictability and high transmissibility of the UK variant and the slow pace of decrease in new cases.

Under the most optimistic scenario, the earliest relaxation would be April 12th, the week after Easter, according to one reliable source. That would be contingent on daily cases falling to 100 by March 15th and for those low numbers to be maintained between then and Easter Sunday, April 4th. That would allow a lowering to Level 4 or Level 3 the following week.

Variant volatility

Other sources said meaningful easing could very well be pushed back to late April or early May. “That will need discussion and a Cabinet decision but that’s the ball park,” one source said. “The higher transmissibility of the UK variant cannot be underestimated. It’s a very slow and cautious approach to suppress the virus and there is a long way to go yet,” said another source.

A Minister, speaking privately, said the new Living with Covid plan on February 23rd would not project beyond three to four weeks, given the volatility caused by variants.

However, there may be some easing in April for non-contact outdoor activity and training, and for outdoor meetings away from the home. “That won’t have a big impact on the virus but will be meaningful in terms of people’s mental health,” said a source.

Last night a further 52 deaths of Covid-19 patients and 866 new confirmed cases of the disease were reported.

Healthcare staff

Public health officials said there were early indications of a fall in infections among healthcare workers due to the rollout of vaccinations. Prof Karina Butler, chairwoman of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, told a Department of Health briefing they were “beginning to hear glimmers in terms of the rate of healthcare infection beginning to come down”. She described the emerging indications as “the first green shoots of spring”.

Separately, passengers from Austria, the United Arab Emirates and certain sub-Saharan African countries now face State quarantine in a hotel amid growing fears about variants. The Government has added these regions to the existing mandatory hotel quarantine list, which already includes Brazil and South Africa.

New figures reveal that 10,601 Irish residents have arrived back into the State from a holiday or visit abroad since late January. According to figures provided by the Department of Justice, the number of passengers arriving back into the State from a holiday represents 65 per cent of all foreign travel since January 26th.

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