Pace of planned reopening catches even Coalition by surprise

Inside Politics: expectation had been that May would see more incremental unwinding

The general expectation had been that May would see more incremental reopening

The general expectation had been that May would see more incremental reopening

 

Good morning - shortly after lunchtime on Wednesday, whispers began to circulate in political circles about a “liberal” stance being taken by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) as it considered its advice to Government.

Until then, the general expectation had been that May would see more of the incremental reopening that has characterised months of policymaking this year.

However, the pace of developments on Wednesday afternoon took even Coalition figures and Ministers by surprise. Dates for reopening things like personal services, which had been expected later in the month, were pulled forward, while it seemed outdoor hospitality - which wasn’t expected until June - could be on the cards for May, as might intercounty travel.

While details can still change and the plan is subject to Cabinet approval, what was agreed in principle last night represents a significant shift in how Covid is managed - and people’s day-to-day experience of the pandemic. Here’s what we know at the moment.

Things that had been tentatively hinted at - such as an increase in the number of households that could meet up outdoors - were expanded in scope and ambition, with proposals now going to Cabinet that will see up to six people or up to three households allowed mix outdoors. This will include mixing in private gardens, another reversal of expectations.

Intercounty travel, which had been expected in June, is now set to be permitted from May 10th, alongside haircuts and click-and-collect shopping. A wider reopening of non-essential retail will follow.

Outdoor hospitality ultimately looks set for a June return, from the 7th, while hotels are expected to open with indoor dining from June 2nd. Distinctions between gastro and “wet” pubs will be ditched. Wider indoor dining will not restart until later, however.

The vaccine bonus, another item thought to be only broadly on the table on Wednesday, has been significantly enhanced, with vaccinated grandparents now likely to be able to meet grandchildren and other family members inside who have not been inoculated.

Indoor meetings between vaccinated people will be expanded, with adjustments made for those who have received a first dose of AstraZeneca. Weddings and religious services will be expanded to 50 people, with numbers at receptions more limited.

All this detail, and more, is covered in our lead story here.

So, what happened? Broadly speaking there seems to have been a meeting of the minds between Government and Nphet. As we report this morning, the Government has privately argued during exchanges with public health officials that heavy restrictions in place since Christmas were grounded in a pre-vaccination scenario, while public tolerance with the restrictions was running out.

On the public health side, there was a growing acceptance that reopening outdoors in May and June would be lower risk, and that vaccination was providing cover for a greater loosening.

However, there’s important detail and caveats here. Ministers were advised that reopening in July onwards would depend on vaccine rollout and uptake, as well as the emerging evidence in the weeks ahead about how the B117 variant transmits and drives infection.

Meanwhile, despite the generally permissive stance from Nphet, Ministers were still warned about how volatile things are, and it’s thought there are concerns in the political and public health camps about current patterns in the spread of Covid in Ireland.

One well-placed source last night wryly observed: “When you scratch under the surface, the old Tony Holohan caution hasn’t gone away.”

Aside from the obvious risk that cases could spiral out of control again, the Government will have to be alive to complaints from restaurateurs who, it seems, will have to remain shut while indoor dining happens in hotels. The centrality of vaccination heaps more pressure, if that were possible, on the success of the programme.

However, Coalition sources were generally upbeat yesterday evening. The reason is simple. They believe the unexpected acceleration of reopening may be the point at which they can say real, tangible and widespread benefits started to be realised, after the long march through winter and early spring. And, of course, they will be hoping for a commensurate, and sustained, bounce in the polls rather than in the disease figures.

Whatever you do, just don’t call it a meaningful summer.

Jennifer Bray’s account of last night’s events and explainer of reopening plans ishere.

There was political drama too, in Northern Ireland, where DUP leader Arlene Foster bowed to pressure from her party and agreed to step down. While most tributes to Ms Foster’s leadership were generous, as Freya McClements reports, the end of her career likely heralds further division and discontent within unionism and the wider political vista in Northern Ireland.

Freya McClement’s front page piece is here, and her analysis can be found here. Her take on the race to be the next DUP leader is here.

Elsewhere, Dublin Editor Olivia Kelly reports a plan to limit the development of land for housing in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown is being opposed by the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin on the basis that it will lower the value of church and school properties.

Best reads

Mark Devenport and Newton Emerson are writing on the twin challenges of political direction and identity for the DUP, and where the struggle with these factors, and within the party, may lead it.

Miriam Lord’s Dáil sketch is here.

Finn McRedmond on how Boris Johnson’s No 10 is more Gossip Girl than West Wing.

Denis Staunton’s latest dispatch from Scotland ahead of Holyrood elections can be found here.

Playbook

With the Cabinet not meeting until later in the afternoon (2.30pm), the Dáil will hear statements, and questions and answers, on the impact of Covid-19 with a focus on mental health and older people. Minister of State Mary Butler, who has responsibility for those areas, will be in the hot seat at 10am.

Leaders’ Questions follows at midday, with Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, Solidarity-PBP and the Independent Group before questions on promised legislation at 12.34pm.

Government Business is at lunchtime with motions on the regulation of the European Parliament, a 55-minute debate on the National Marine Planning Framework, the Climate Action and Criminal Justice Bills, and the Private Security Services (Amendment) Bill.

The Labour Party has a motion on autism services at 6pm, before topical issues follows at 8pm.

The Seanad is not sitting, and there are two private meetings at committee level - Foreign Affairs and Public Petitions.

Really, all the political action is going to be in Government buildings. Cabinet meets to sign off on the latest round of reopening measures around 2pm, which will likely be followed by the usual address to the nation via the Six One news by the Taoiseach. A press conference with Leo Varadkar, Eamon Ryan and Dr Tony Holohan should follow.

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