Prolonged period of lockdown ahead, Taoiseach tells party meeting

Micheál Martin says UK variant keeping Covid-19 numbers stubbornly high

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has indicated that Ireland will remain in a prolonged period of lockdown that Fianna Fáil colleagues predict could last right up to the beginning of May.

Mr Martin told Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators on Wednesday that the UK variant of Covid-19 (which now accounts for three-quarters of all cases in Ireland) had resulted in numbers remaining stubbornly high.

At a meeting of his parliamentary party, he said Covid numbers in hospitals were still 25 per cent higher than in the April peak last year, and the number of patients in ICU was falling very slowly.

He expressed concern at the impact of the UK variant saying that close contacts had a positivity rate of 22.5 per cent, over twice the positivity rate of 10-11 per cent of the original virus.

He told colleagues a “prolonged period” of suppression was required. A senior Government source said the new Living with Covid plan, and the planned changes to commence on March 5th, would not result in any easing of Level 5 restrictions, save in the key sectors of education and construction.

Conversely, said the source, the Level 5 restrictions will be tightened in many cases. There was a sign of that on Wednesday, when the GAA revealed that inter-county games will no longer be allowable under Level 5.

“We are in a phase of indefinite lockdown,” said the source. “The restrictions will continue right into April and possibly to the beginning of May.”

“There will be zero wriggle room for anyone looking for relaxing of restrictions,” he said.

Hotel quarantine

It came as Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party that mandatory hotel quarantine would be very difficult and will create real hardship for families and for people.

He also told colleagues that Ireland can not hope to have restrictions that can be compared with Australia and New Zealand. He pointed to the Border and the high number of cases in counties close to the Border. He said he was unsure if mandatory quarantine would even be introduced in the North, according to colleagues who were at the meeting.

He also pointed to the difficulties in coordinating a response to Covid across the UK and Ireland, saying there were five different jurisdictions across the two islands, and the Government was doing its best to increase cooperation.

Charlie Flanagan was highly critical of the new criminal sanctions for travel introduced in Britain ‑ including imprisonment of 10 years - and said he hoped it would not be introduced in Ireland. Eoghan Murphy raised the issues of people returning home for family funerals being subject to mandatory quarantine in hotels, while John Paul Phelan pointed out it would impact on couples seeking IVF treatment abroad.

Knife crime

At the Fianna Fáíl meeting, deputies Jim O’Callaghan and Padraig O’Sullivan introduced a Bill to tackle the spate of knife crime, which they said was now going out of control in Dublin and other cities. The Bill will extend maximum sentence for possession of a knife from five years to 10 years.

John McGuinness won widespread support for criticism of the bank in their approach to mortgage arrears, the sell-off of loan books to vulture funds, as well as the expected withdrawal of Ulster Bank from the Irish market.

Laois-Offaly TD Barry Cowen received unanimous support for a bespoke retrofit pilot programme for pensioners who currently rely on solid fuel.

A motion proposed by Mr Murphy and Jennifer Carroll MacNeill which highlighted inconsistencies between schools with regard to remote learning and seeking certainty about State examinations going ahead this year was passed unanimously. The meeting also heard everything possible is being done to get schools back up and running.