Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said that “the end is truly in sight” as 82 per cent of people will have received their first Covid-19 vaccine by the end of June.
Announcing the extension of Level 5 restrictions until April 5th, and the phased return of in-school teaching, Mr Martin said the Government wants to make sure “that when we ease each particular restriction we take a careful approach to ensure when we open something, it stays open.”
He said after the next phase of restrictions, due to be reviewed before April 5th, the Government will consider easing the 5km travel limit and easing restrictions on people meeting outdoors and outdoor sports.
The Taoiseach said there would be a “major ramping up” of the vaccination programme.
By the end of April up to 40 per cent of people over 18 will have had their first dose. By the end of May up to 64 per cent of people will have had their first dose.
By the end of June up to 82 per cent of adults will have received at least one dose. Up to 60 per cent will be fully vaccinated by that stage, Mr Martin said.
“I know that people are physically and emotionally exhausted. We are all completely fed up with the impositions on our lives,” he said.
Mr Martin said the new UK variant of the disease was like “a new virus almost and is a major problem. The truth is it has changed the dynamic significantly.”
The Fianna Fail leader said that it was essential to keep the number of infections low in order to open the country safely.
He said the way forward was split into two phases, the situation before April 5th, and the situation after.
He said while Ireland would remain in Level 5 restrictions, there will be three important differences. This includes the phased return of in school education, the expansion of the reopening of childcare, and the resumption of non-Covid health and social care services.
Mr Martin appealed to the public to use the month of March to drive down the number of infections in the community.
“I know how hard this is. I know the devastation is has brought. But I also know the end is now truly in sight.”
School and childcare reopening timetable
Junior, senior infants, first and second class will return at primary while sixth years will return at secondary. Special schools will also return to full attendance, while children will return to early start pre-school classes and early intervention special classes.
Early Childhood Care and Education preschool scheme (mainly three to five year olds ) due to reopen.
Target date for return of remainder of primary school children return – third to sixth class - along with fifth year students at second level . This date will be reviewed.
Early learning and care (from birth to six years) and school-age childcare services (up to 14 years) to reopen.
Target date for the return to in-school education of the remainder of secondary students: first to fourth year students.
The Cabinet has also approved plans to extend Covid-19 pandemic welfare supports, such as the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, until the end of June.
Speaking at a press conference later the Taoiseach said elite sport will continue under Level 5. “There is no question on that.”
The Government will move those with underlying condition and who face severe risk of serious illness or death up the priority list for vaccination.
People are “exhausted” by Covid-19 restrictions, and while there are “grounds for hope and optimism”, substantial easing of restrictions is some way off, coalition leaders told a press conference on Tuesday.
While the Government has published its new plan for managing the pandemic, the party leaders and public health chiefs acknowledged on Tuesday that identifying the exact metrics to determine if and when reopening would take place was not yet clear.
At a press conference at Government buildings on Tuesday evening, Leo Varadkar, the Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader, said that people are “exhausted” and a lot of people are depressed and parents are struggling with home-working and home-schooling. However he said there are “grounds for hope and reason for optimism”, and that the “virus is in retreat, both here and globally”.
He said globally, data on vaccinations is “really encouraging”. He said some routine health services would be resumed in the weeks ahead, such as cancer screening. “If things work out and we keep the virus suppressed, we can look forward to more restrictions being eased after Easter”.
He said that he regretted that clarity could not be given to those on the pandemic unemployment payment, but that the “safety net” of payments to people and businesses would continue, the commercial rates waiver would be extended, and sector specific supports would also be continued.
Dr Ronan Glynn, the deputy chief medical officer, said that the emerging data on vaccines are “really promising” and that vaccination will become “our most powerful tool against Covid-19”. He said that “there are brighter days ahead, but in the meantime, we know what works, we know how to do it, and we know we can do it well”.
However, the Taoiseach and Dr Glynn were unable to clearly express the exact metrics that would be used to measure progress, or determine if further reopening could take place. Mr Martin said that if the country moves above 1 in terms of the R number, which assesses how quickly the disease is spreading in the population. “Obviously if we move significantly above that, it would be a problem clearly”. Dr Glynn said that an R number above one right now, given the levels of disease in the population “would be very concerning”, but less so if there were only 10 or 20 cases per day.
The Labour Party said that were it not for the pandemic, it would consider a motion of no-confidence in the Minister for Education Norma Foley.
“If it wasn’t for the pandemic we’d probably be in motion of no confidence territory. The way the education sector has been treated by the department has gone beyond disrespectful, it’s in the insulting category,” education spokesman Aodhan O Riordain said this evening.
He condemned recent confusion about the timetable for returning to school and said there was still no clarity from the Department of Education how the leaving cert students, who are due to return next week, were going to be treated or assessed.
He said the Labour Party welcomes the reopening of schools, “but it has to be done safely”.
He said however that reopening schools without mandatory quarantine for everyone coming into the country was “destined to fail”.
Asked if the schools should return more quickly than the government’s plan, Mr O Riordain said, “I don’t know if they can go back quicker. I don’t know if it’s safe.”
“I have to trust the department . . . knows what it’s doing, based on the advice it’s got from Nphet and from the teachers’ unions.”
He did not believe that Easter school holidays should be cut short, he said.