Restrictions on hairdressing, retail and religious services set to be eased next month

Taoiseach rules out lifting of overseas holiday ban in early summer

The Taoiseach, speaking during a testy Dáil exchange with Labour leader Alan Kelly, has confirmed that the Government is still targeting to vaccinate 82 per cent of the population against Covid-19 by the end of June. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said the Government will make a detailed statement next week on what areas of society can open in May and June.

In addition to the return of some outdoor activities next week, he instanced decisions that might come into effect in May on hairdressing, retail, adult non-contact sport, and religious services. He said decisions would be made closer to June on hotel and guest houses.

Speaking to reporters, he ruled out any international travel for leisure during the early months of summer, indicating it was too early to make such decisions.

“We are conscious that numbers have to be kept down. There is a variant out there that is very transmissible. That is the context,” he said.

Earlier, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said there is “good news on the horizon” about allowing non-essential travel such as holidays abroad but any changes to travel advice would be gradual.

At a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday evening, Mr Martin spoke further about the issue, saying the priorities for reopening for May were hairdressers and retail as well as religious services.

“Hairdressers and barbers have suffered a lot and will be prioritised,” said the Taoiseach.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said that a return of worship, including Mass, was under consideration for May.

Antigen testing

The meeting also heard that the first extensive uses of antigen testing in Ireland could happen later this year on students returning to third level campuses and on spectators attending sporting fixtures.

Mr Martin said antigen testing would play its part in allowing third level students attend their universities and colleges next autumn.

He told TDs and Senators that the country needed students back on campus this September.

“Young people have missed out a lot and their third level experience and education has been disrupted for nearly two years,” he told the meeting, according to TDs who were present.

“We need to change that in the next academic year. Antigen testing will play its part in allowing students back.”

At the same meeting, Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan called for antigen testing to be allowed for Leinster’s forthcoming home games.

If it is used by university and colleges, it will be the first time that widespread antigen testing will become part of official Government policy. There have been debates about the accuracy and efficacy of antigen tests in other countries. They are not as accurate as PCR tests but advocates say they can have a useful purpose in screening for Covid-19 in certain circumstances.

Mr Martin also told the meeting that the European Commission is pre-purchasing vaccines and booster to deal with new variants that might arise later this year and into 2022 and 2023.

Nphet figures

A further 15 deaths of Covid-19 patients have been reported by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).

Only two of the deaths occurred this month; three date from March, six from February, and four from January or earlier.

This brings to 4,856 the total number of deaths in the pandemic.

Those who died ranged in age from 56 to 90 years and the median age was 82.

Nphet also reported 401 confirmed cases of the disease, bringing to 244,695 the total number of cases in the Republic.

Of the new cases, 182 were in Dublin, 40 in Kildare, 31 in Donegal, 23 in Limerick and 22 in Cork, with the remaining 103 cases spread across 17 other counties.

The median age of cases is 31 years and 73 per cent are under 45.

The 14-day incidence of the disease now stands at 113 cases per 100,000 people nationally. Donegal has the highest county incidence, followed by Kildare. Sligo has the lowest incidence.

On Wednesday morning, 182 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised, of which 47 were in ICU. There were 19 additional hospitalisations in the previous 24 hours.

Up to Monday, 1,219,487 doses of vaccine had been administered: 863,958 people first doses and 355,529 second doses.

Other data released on Wednesday showed Covid-19 outbreaks in schools fell sharply last week despite the return of remaining classes.

The number of outbreaks notified last week was five, down from 14 the previous week and 44 a week earlier. Only two of these outbreaks dated from April, according to the figures from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.

On vaccines, Mr Martin said it was still the Government’s target to ensure 82 per cent of the adult population was vaccinated against Covid-19 by the end of June.

He told the Dáil there had been no change in the plan to administer 250,000 doses of vaccine weekly from next week, but he said there were challenges with supplies.

Advisory group

Mr Martin also angrily rejected a suggestion that a new advisory group was being established “as a mudguard” around Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly because of concerns about his performance in dealing with the vaccine rollout.

The Taoiseach was responding during sharp Dáil exchanges with Labour leader Alan Kelly who sharply criticised the “haphazard approach” to the vaccination programme.

Mr Kelly pointed to comments by senior Health Service Executive (HSE) official Damian McCallion that he could not confirm the June target of 82 per cent first-dose vaccination could be achieved. The Tipperary TD pointed to reports that the target had been extended to July.

He said there had been 12 changes to vaccine delivery targets since the beginning of the week and pledges of 45,000 AstraZeneca injections had been reduced to 9,000.

And he criticised as a “mess” the rollout of vaccination centres and the recruitment of vaccinators which had to be done five times.

Mr Kelly also asked when the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) was meeting to consider extending the interval between doses.

‘More bureaucracy’

He referred to an Irish Times report referencing the creation of “another new oversight group” to be chaired by the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach, called the “vaccine rollout group”.

The Labour leader said it was to deal with some of the serious clinical and logistical differences and he asked why it was being rolled out and why they needed “a new layer of bureaucracy”.

He said “what in the name of God is this new group” and claimed it was a “mudguard around Mr Donnelly because of your Government’s concern” about “his performance particularly over the last number of weeks”.

In an angry response Mr Martin said it was “absolutely not” the reason for the establishment of the committee.

He said the Labour leader should be supporting the vaccine programme “not trying to undermine it”.

When he said he was not interested in that kind of politics, Mr Kelly accused him of engaging in diversionary tactics.

The Taoiseach said the group involves Niac, the HSE and the vaccine taskforce because there is a “relationship between the advice and the operationalisation of that advice in terms of the administration of vaccines”.

He said Niac would meet on Thursday to consider the European Medicines Agency advice on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the issue of extending the interval between vaccine doses.