Taoiseach says ‘hope is returning’ as he outlines plan to significantly ease Covid-19 restrictions from May 10th
Travel outside county, larger outdoor meet-ups, hairdressing, sports training and religious services to be permitted in two weeks
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said a degree of normality and hope is returning to life in Ireland as he confirmed the planned reopening of society and economy from May 10th.
In a nationwide address broadcast on RTÉ, he said the vaccine rollout programme would accelerate in the weeks ahead.
Mr Martin confirmed that online registrations for vaccinations will open next week for people over the age of 50, and that by Thursday evening some 1.5 million vaccine doses will have been administered throughout the country.
“As we enter this next stage of a long and difficult journey, we all search for inspiration. We try to find reassurance that there is a solid basis for the hope that is growing within us.
“For me, I found it in the faces and the laughter of all those people I’ve met on my visits to vaccination centres.
“Because as disruptive, as lonely, as frustrating and as sad as the last year has been, we are getting through it, and a degree of normality is returning. The company of friends and relations is returning. Hope is returning.
“Each and every one of us has an image in our head of a moment that we’re looking forward to enjoying when we get through this. I know I have. Tonight, each and every one of us is closer to enjoying that moment than we have been for a very long time. Let’s stick to the strategy,” Mr Martin said.
He said the strategy was working.
He said it had been “a very tough and unprecedented year in so many ways”, but people had done everything that they had been asked to do.
“Because of your hard work and sacrifices, we are in a better place. A million of our children are now back safely at school. Our young people are back playing sport, house building has safely restarted all across the country. Vital non-Covid healthcare has been restored.
“And critically, our national vaccination programme is progressing well. By tonight, more than 1½ million vaccine doses will have been administered. That means close to 30 per cent of everyone over 16 has received at least one dose of the vaccine.”
Mr Martin said that in making decisions on what should happen next, the Government has weighed a number of considerations.
“We’ve looked at the progress achieved in managing this programme and the need to continue responsibly reopening our society and economy. But we’ve also looked at the risks of moving too quickly.
“We have to monitor closely the issue of dangerous new variants, and learn from the experience of other countries that are now in the grip of deadly new waves of the disease. And in particular, our thoughts and prayers are with the people of India. As a country, we are doing what we can to help them through this terrible time.”
Mr Martin said the Government believes it is safe to continue moving forward in two phases over the coming months.
The next phase will start on May 10th.
He said a number of freedoms will resume from this date including the resumption of inter-county travel. Click-and-collect services and retail by appointment can begin at all non-essential retail outlets, with full reopening on May 17th. Galleries, museums and other cultural attractions can reopen as well as libraries. Religious services can resume with a limit of 50 people attending.
“We can increase the numbers of people able to meet outdoors for social purposes, including private gardens to a maximum of either three households, or a group of six people. Small organised outdoor gatherings will also be possible with a maximum attendance of 15 people. Outdoor training for adults can also recommend in pods of a maximum of 15 people.”
It is understood that limits on the size of outdoor meet-ups will not count children under 12. Sources said that younger children would not be included when taking account of a mooted six-person limit to outdoor activities, which will enable more latitude for family meet-ups outdoors.
Mr Martin also confirmed the expected return of hairdressers and personal services from May 10th.
Meanwhile, the Government has decided on the “safe, gradual and phased” reopening of some driver services through the Road Safety Authority (RSA), from May 10th.
The priorities will be to support essential workers by allowing the resumption of driving instruction for this category. Up to now only essential workers who had completed their first 12 EDT lessons could access pre test instruction. Tests for essential workers have been available.
Driving instruction and testing for motorcyclists will resume, along with a gradual easing of the backlog, prioritising non-essential workers who have been waiting the longest.
Confirming the planned vaccine dividend, Mr Martin said there will also be increased opportunities for those who have been fully vaccinated.
“Indoor private home visiting will be permitted without masks or social distancing in the following cases: those who are fully vaccinated may visit with other fully vaccinated people, providing there is no more than three household present, and those who are fully vaccinated may visit with unvaccinated people from a single household provided they are not at risk of severe illness.”
Mr Martin said the Government would monitor closely the effect of all these changes.
Subject to the situation remaining stable, the Government will then proceed with the next phase.
This would mean that from June 2nd, hotels, B&Bs, guest houses and self-catering accommodation can reopen for guests and from June 7th, outdoor services in bars and restaurants can recommence with sector-specific safety measures in place.
Outdoor sports matches can recommence but with no spectators at this time. Gyms, swimming pools and leisure centers can reopen for individual training. The number of guests attending wedding receptions can increase to 25 and indoor visits in private homes from one other household can begin again, he said.
“Taking these steps will see many thousands of people going back to work for the first time in many months.”
The Taoiseach said that thoughts will also inevitably turn to what happens next.
“Clearly, the overriding priority is the continued successful rollout of the vaccine. I’m pleased to confirm that over the course of next week, the portal will open for registration to all those aged 50 to 59,” he said.
“The Covid vaccines are transformative, we can see it in countries all across the world. And we can see it here. Already, almost all of our most vulnerable are now protected, and we can already see that the rates of death, serious illness, hospital admissions and infections and people who have been vaccinated have collapsed, all across the country.”
Mr Martin said that in July and beyond he wants to see the aviation, tourism, and all hospitality businesses “back doing what they do better than anyone else on Earth.”
“We can do all of these things and more and plans are being developed in each of these sectors. However, to enable all of this, the key factor remains sticking with the strategy. Our choices and our individual behaviour remain key.”
Ministers met on Thursday afternoon to sign off on a faster-than-expected lifting of curbs, approved by a Cabinet sub-committee late on Thursday night.
However, the Government was warned that a full assessment of the pandemic situation would be needed before moving to the next phase of measures in June.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney warned that the plan would have to be revised if infection numbers increase as economic and social activity ramps up.
Ministers were said to be surprised by the scale of the recommendations and the view was that “Nphet went a bit faster than might have been expected”.
Mr Coveney said Nphet had indicated that the proposed changes were viewed as having a “low to moderate” risk level but he cautioned that “if the numbers spike, we will change the plan”.
He said he hoped that the changes, which were approved by the Cabinet this afternoon, represented “light at the end of the tunnel” after a difficult 14 months, but stressed that the public would still need to be mindful of the risks posed by the disease.
“We’re not out of the woods, but we’re part way there,” he told Newstalk Breakfast.