Hugh O’Connell and Eilish O’Regan
The lockdown restrictions for Level 5 are expected to be extended for at least another six weeks, with only schools and the construction sector expected to reopen before Easter.
A « refreshed » plan for living with Covid will be released the following week, but senior figures involved in drafting the document say it is unlikely to have definitive schedules or dates for company reopening and economy.
Subject to cabinet approval, the current level 5 restrictions, which are due to expire on March 5th, are expected to be extended to at least April 12th.
In addition to keeping most shops and restaurants closed, Nor does this likely mean a change to the current home stay recommendation and 5km travel limit – although Tánaiste Leo Varadkar is pushing for households to be allowed to meet outdoors after March 5.
The government is focusing first Line on gradually reopening schools and the construction sector over the next month, closely monitoring the effects of the increased movement of parents and construction workers to determine if further restrictions can be eased in April.
The non-essential retail and hospitality sectors will remain closed for a few more weeks. Pubs, restaurants, bars and many hotels are not expected to reopen until May or June at the earliest and will focus on eating and drinking outdoors. However, reopening will depend on the number of cases, hospital stays, and the rate of reproduction of the virus.
The revised plan will outline a path for reopening, but there is currently no intention to provide final dates or timetables for any sectors – with the government’s strong desire to ensure this is the final blockade of the pandemic.
« The revised plan will try to show a way forward but it won’t be final and the government wants to prevent an open-close-open-close approach, » said a senior government source.
A second high-profile source said it makes sense to try and bring the daily case numbers to very low levels while vaccinating high-risk people by the end of March.
However, a third government source indicated that some form of movement restrictions will be required to ensure that mass vaccination centers can operate safely.
« Vaccination plays a really important role in this, but it cannot be threatened either. »
Ministers hope that improving weather in spring and summer will pave the way for easing restrictions on outdoor gatherings.
Mr Varadkar informed his parliamentary party last night that the number of cases in Covid-19 is dropping by 30 percentage points week after week. He said the lockdown was working and that this would strengthen the case for schools to reopen in February and March.
He said the revision of the existing Living with Covid plan later this month would take into account the vaccination program and the emergence of new virus variants.
He said the government will set follow-up dates for various pandemic support programs that are due to expire in late March.
Meanwhile, there was a huge increase in the number of family outbreaks of the virus in private households last week – from 37 to 72.
The more infectious UK strain of the virus means closer contact with an infected person will test positive.
People who have close contacts are now tested twice – including on the 10th day of exposure. If their second test on the 10th day determines that the virus is « not detected », they can end their restricted mobility.
The number of Covid-19 patients in the hospital has fallen to 1,032, but 173 seriously ill remain on the ICU, 40 more hospitalizations in the last 24 hours.
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There is « no point » in reopening schools « if we close them a few weeks later, » said Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Labor Education Spokesman.
There have been another 54 Covid-19-related deaths, while 1,006 new cases of the virus were confirmed by the Ministry of Health tonight.
The government has admitted that its plan to live with Covid-19 is not working, and it is drafting a new framework for exiting the third national lockdown.
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