Taoiseach Micheál Martin last night confirmed that the widespread reopening of social life and commercial activity would proceed in May and June, with the further restoration of normal life in prospect for July.
The reopening will take place in stages, beginning next Monday and continuing on the following Mondays during May and into June, when hotels will reopen and outdoor hospitality will return.
In a televised address delivered on the steps of Government Buildings on Thursday evening, Mr Martin said the Cabinet had, as expected, agreed to begin lifting a large number of restrictions – including on travel, personal services, retail, outdoor socialising and religious services – in early May.
At the end of the month, the Government will assess whether the reopening should continue in June. If the assessment is positive, hotels will open before the June bank holiday and outdoor hospitality, gyms and sports matches after that. And Mr Martin indicated that foreign travel and inbound tourism could restart in July if the public health situation remained positive.
Senior Government sources confirmed that the phased nature of the reopening was designed to enable the State’s vaccine programme to continue reducing the number of people susceptible to the virus.
Declaring that “hope is returning” and urging people to “stick with the strategy”, Mr Martin said the number of vaccines administered passed the 1.5 million mark on Thursday. The online portal for vaccine registration will open next week for those over 50, he confirmed.
Mr Martin acknowledged there were risks in reopening, but he said, “there are risks in everything we do”. He stressed that unlike when previous lockdowns were lifted, only to see a subsequent surge in cases, the vaccination programme will protect people as it continues to be rolled out.
But Mr Martin declined to be drawn on the levels of case numbers, hospitalisations or deaths that would stop the reopening. Though he acknowledged the likelihood that infections would increase as social and economic life restarted, he insisted that daily case numbers were only one metric which would be taken into account, citing hospitalisations and ICU numbers as other indicators.
Mr Martin repeatedly stressed caution, but the announcements were unmistakably upbeat after months of difficult management of the pandemic. Ireland’s lockdown has been in place since before Christmas – one of the longest and toughest in the world.
There was a widespread welcome from opposition parties and business groups, but there were complaints from some quarters too. The Restaurants Association of Ireland complained that hotels would be able to serve food indoors while its members could not, and said there was “disbelief, confusion and frustration” in the sector.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that thousands of businesses would reopen and hundreds of thousands of people would be able to return to work. He said many of the business and employee supports would remain in place “at least until the end of June”.
He also said that while there could be a “mini-boom” in the time ahead as people spent accumulated savings, the Government wouldn’t withdraw financial supports as that spending dissipated. There will be a double payment available under the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme to help hospitality businesses to reopen and the reduced 9 per cent VAT rate will stay in place at least until the end of the year.
He said the response to the pandemic was being financed with borrowed money and the best way to service and refinance debt was a rapid economic recovery.
Mr Varadkar added that it was likely to be September before people were allowed to return to their offices, as he said that would be when a “critical mass” of people was vaccinated.
Minister for Arts and Sports Catherine Martin said that the Government would prepare proposals for the holding of a limited number of pilot large events for sport and music, including indoor events, though she declined to be drawn on when the events would take place.