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Friday Cabinet meeting 'not out of the question' as Govt optimistic about easing restrictions

There is an optimistic mood in government circles as politicians return to work after the Christmas break.

Image: RollingNews.ie

CABINET MAY MEET on Friday of this week to make a call on the further easing of restrictions, it is understood.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) will meet on Thursday and have been asked by government to consider easing restrictions on hospitality and working from home.

While it had been expected that Cabinet would not make a decision on easing restrictions until next week, government sources have said that it all depends on what NPHET offers and what government wants to do, stating that a Friday Cabinet meeting is “not out of the question”. 

While it’s not confirmed, senior sources said it’s very possible there will be a meeting on Friday. 

Politicians return to work in Leinster House this week after their Christmas break, with ministers expected to hold their regular Cabinet meeting tomorrow. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said last week that businesses would be given plenty of notice this time about the forthcoming changes to the rules.

However, an early easing of restrictions before the end of the month was not being ruled out as of last night.

Postive mood music 

“I am feeling hopeful,” said one senior minister, who added that the mood music in government circles this week is “good”. Another senior source said the mood within government this week is “positive”.

Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne has urged the Government to indicate this week to theatres and arts venues that they will be able to fully re-open, with appropriate safety measures, at the end of this month.

“Theatres and arts venues need to plan programming. As we are now moving past peak Omicron, and where all adults have had access to booster vaccines and where children can now be vaccinated, we should be giving notice for re-opening of vital cultural and entertainment facilities. Drama and music are going to play a vital role in bringing our communities back together,” he said. 

He asked that the government give a clear signal this week to allow venues to prepare. 

Speaking on Newstalk yesterday, Fine Gael TD and former minister Michael Ring said it is “time now to start moving on… the time has come that we open up that people move back into normality again”, he said.

“I think really people have had enough,” he added, stating that the public has done what has been asked of them, and now it the “time to move on”. 

“We need to give people hope,” said Ring.

Meanwhile. the CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland has called for a return to normal trading hours for the hospitality industry later this week, rather than waiting another two weeks. 

Adrian Cummins said that he would like the lifting of measures to take effect once the NPHET meets on Thursday, allowing the industry to reopen fully next week.

He said that the 8pm closing time was “effectively a lockdown for hospitality”.

Cummins said that a phased return of the entire economy was needed, including the night-time economy.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said last week that he is hopeful that advice from NPHET will be that restrictions can be eased at the end of January.

Government will be looking at the possible easing of restrictions for hospitality, allowing cultural events and hospitality sectors to trade beyond 8pm, he confirmed.

“We’ll be looking at hospitality and obviously the 8pm restriction as well,” he said.

It is hoped bars and restaurants will be permitted to open to at least 11pm or midnight from the beginning of February before full opening hours come into force later in the month, however, there have been calls for government to ease restrictions sooner. 

There is also a hope among some that NPHET may recommend a gradual and partial return to office of 25% or 50%.

It is also expected that full 100% capacities will be permitted at outdoor sporting events.

Sources are keen to highlight that any such change would be dependent on things going well and ICU numbers remaining stable, but it is understood that expectations are that restrictions will be eased on a phased basis. 

Government hopes to “step back” to where the country was prior to the latest restrictions being brought in, returning closing time for pubs and restaurants to 11pm first, and then two to three weeks later rolling the country back to the restrictions that were in place on 22 October, which would include nightclubs re-opening. 

Following that, two to three weeks later, the plan is to drop everything else – other than mask-wearing in indoor public areas and Covid passes, sources said. 

Summertime

Varadkar, speaking on RTE Radio’s This Week, said he believes that by the summer all restrictions will be lifted. 

He said he would hope and will be lobbying, for a broader and faster-paced reopening of Irish society which will be in line with European countries.  

“I also do think we’re coming to the point where we also need to move on. We’ve had very strict restrictions in Ireland for two years now.

“If you take last summer, the summer before that, we had the strictest rules in Europe. I don’t think that should be the case this summer, and certainly as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, who wants to get businesses open once again, people back to work and as a leader of the Fine Gael party that believes in individual freedom.

“I’ll be pushing for a more ambitious and a quicker reopening over the next couple of months – nothing risky, nothing reckless but certainly something that’s in line with our European peers,” he said. 

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Varadkar said his hopes for the year ahead is that restrictions will be lifted and referenced an important date in March. 

“I think that should be the aim. As you know, all the legislation actually falls on 31 March, (it) can be extended by three months.

“And you know, one thing I said yesterday to my party, is that on many occasions, we’ve acted out of an abundance of caution. But sometimes an abundance of caution can be an excess of caution. And we need to avoid that.

“And I’m very keen to see the reopening happening at an ambitious pace over the next few weeks next few months,” he added. 

While cases soared over the last month, health and medical experts are heartened to see a levelling off in the number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care units. 

The HSE says recent weeks of stable deaths and ICU admissions shows that case numbers are being “decoupled” from the severe harm associated with the disease.

This scenario in Ireland is in line with international evidence showing that the Omicron variant, while more transmissible, appears to inflict less serious illness.

Pete Lunn of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit told Newstalk Breakfast this morning that people had “switched off” from reading the news over Christmas, but had returned to it in January. He also said that people changed their behaviour around Christmas.

“There has been really large behaviour change over Christmas, and into the New Year. We’ve got more people staying at home, we’ve got fewer people going into work. We’ve got people reporting not only that they are taking mitigation measures more – like wearing masks, keeping 2m apart – but we’ve also got them reporting they see other people doing the same thing.

So the behavioural measures we’ve got actually suggest there was a large behavioural change in the run up to Christmas, particularly just after Christmas and into the New Year.

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