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As it happened: Government confirms how Covid-19 restrictions will change from Friday

Covid certs aren’t going away just yet. Here’s what else was confirmed today.

LAST UPDATE | 19 Oct 2021

THE GOVERNMENT HAS confirmed certain Covid-19 restrictions will remain in place beyond 22 October. 

Following a Cabinet meeting, Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced:

  • Covid digital certs will continue to be required in restaurants, bars and indoor events.
  • Covid passes and fixed capacity limits will no longer apply to outdoor events.
  • Table service only will remain in place with limits on the numbers allowed at one table. 
  • Nightclubs will be free to open on Friday and dancing will be allowed. 
  • Weddings can proceed without capacity limits.
  • NIAC, meanwhile, has recommended vaccine boosters for people over 60. 

Good morning folks, Cónal Thomas here.

I’ll be with you throughout the morning as Cabinet gets ready to meet in the next few minutes. 

Before that though, a quick recap:

Last week, senior government officials heard that Ireland’s Covid-19 situation has taken an unexpected turn. 

The government was seeking detailed data from health officials on the increasing Covid-19 case numbers and hospitalisations ahead of today’s Cabinet meeting.

Last week saw one day where over 2,000 new cases of Covid-19 were reported.

NPHET’s head of modelling Professor Philip Nolan said at the time: “Fundamentally we’re on a knife edge here, balanced between the protection of vaccination, which is offering this huge protection.”

“For people who are not yet vaccinated or haven’t completed their vaccination regimen, we as a society need to do everything we can to encourage and support those people to take up the vaccine, for whatever reason they’ve avoided to date, see what can we do to encourage them.” 

Nolan said that high vaccination rates are preventing a surge of infections.

Currently, fewer than 10% of the adult population is unvaccinated, but those who have not been vaccinated make up about half of those hospitalised with Covid-19 and two- thirds of those in ICU.

It prompted HSE CEO Paul Reid yesterday to say it was time to hit the reset button, leaving many wondering what exactly he meant, beyond reinforcing the basic measures we’ve all become so used to since March 2020. 

It’s now over to the Government to decide how we should proceed from Friday. 

So what are we likely looking at from 22nd October?

Well, there had been plans to lift all remaining restrictions but a recent spike in cases has thrown that all into doubt. 

It looks likely the requirement to show a Digital Covid-19 Certificate will extend beyond Friday, and that nightclubs will be required to check these upon entry. 

Antigen testing, favoured by Taoiseach Micheál Martin but not NPHET, looks set to be introduced on a wide scale to allow society to further reopen. 

Mask-wearing and social distance are likely to remain in place. 

NEW: Reports coming in now that Health Minister Stephen Donnelly will tell his Cabinet colleagues that antigen tests will be sent to vaccinated people who are considered close contacts of positive cases. 

If you’d like to know more about the accuracy of antigen and PCR tests, I sat down with colleagues Sinéad O’Carroll and Nicky Ryan earlier this year to find out.

Hello, if you’re just joining us, it’s all go!

The Cabinet meeting is set to get underway in the next while and I’m on my 3rd cup of coffee. 

While I have you, did you know my colleague Nicky Ryan has an excellent Covid-19 newsletter rounding up the latest developments in Ireland and abroad?

No? Well, you can sign up here

It looks like a post-Cabinet announcement will take place earlier than usual. The three party leaders are due to brief the media at midday so stay tuned!

Meanwhile, here’s Minister Stephen Donnelly on his way into Cabinet. 

Cabinet meeting 011 Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

Speaking on his way into Cabinet this morning, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said “we will have a challenging winter” but that “vaccines do work in preventing hospitalisations, ICU and in particular severe illness”. 

He urged people who had yet to take up a vaccine to do so. 

The Taoiseach said collectively the public need to follow basic public health measures, adding that “we are in a much different position to that of last year”. 

“We need to proceed with caution over the next number of months to defeat this virus.”

Cabinet meeting 006 Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan has said Government considered delaying the reopening of nightclubs on Friday but ultimately decided against it. 

However, he said it won’t be without its challenges amid speculation that there will be limits on capacity. 

Cabinet meeting 016

If you’re just joining us Cabinet is underway as Government prepare for an early afternoon announcement on the further easing of Covid-19 restrictions on Friday. 

More now from Health Minister Stephen Donnelly on that earlier antigen testing development:

“I think it’s important to say it’s already being used,” says Donnelly, on his way into Cabinet, adding that antigen testing is already used in workplaces, higher education and childcare settings. 

Antigen tests will now be sent to vaccinated people who are considered close contacts of positive cases, he says.

The Minister says he has advice from NPHET which allows for antigen testing to be used by fully vaccinated people who are close contacts of a confirmed case. 

The Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Eamon Ryan, are due to start briefing the media in just a few minutes, though this may change if the Cabinet meeting concludes late. 

As we suspected, the Cabinet meeting has gone on longer than expected so we won’t be hearing from the Taoiseach until after 12.30pm, our Political Correspondent Christina Finn has said.

In case you missed the news this morning, the  National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) has recommended vaccine boosters for people aged 60 and over. 

This advice will now be considered by Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan and the HSE which administers the booster programme. 

While we wait for the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister Ryan, let’s take a look at the Covid situation in New Zealand.

The country was praised for its management of the pandemic in the early days of Covid, but has been struggling in recent weeks to keep the Delta variant under control.

Health authorities announced 94 new virus cases today, exceeding the previous daily record of 89 set in April last year during the first wave of Covid-19 infections.

In an international comparison, that case number figure is very low – we’d be happy with only 94 new cases per day in Ireland – but by New Zealand’s own standards it is concerning as it has been steadily rising. 

Around two-thirds of the eligible population have now been fully inoculated and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has now had to drop her core policy goal of eliminating the virus in favour of ramping up vaccination efforts.

Our Political Correspondent Christina Finn is in place at Government Buildings, waiting for the announcement:

Cabinet sources have told her that they signed off on stadiums going to full capacity, wedding number restrictions being lifted, as well as religious ceremony limits being lifted.

However she was told these sectors will have extra responsibility with compliance.

Taoiseach Michaél Martin speaking now, he says sectors due to reopen on 22 October may only do so on the basis that customers produce proof of vaccination.

In hospitality venues table service only should remain in place with a maximum of ten adults and a maximum of 15 people including children.

Covid passes and fixed capacity limits will no longer apply to outdoor events.

The Taoiseach confirms weddings can proceed as planned without capacity limits.

He says the return to workplaces will continue on “a phased and cautious basis” and there will be a meeting today where employers and employee representatives can discuss protocols involved. 

Martin says alongside these changes, Cabinet has also agreed an enhanced role for the use of antigen testing. 

Tests will now be sent to fully vaccinated close contacts of confirmed cases, he says, and the government will work with certain sectors to develop a role for antigen tests to improve the safety of certain events, activities and work. 

“The progress we have made together over the course of the last year is real, tangible, and has to be protected,” the Taoiseach says.

“The changes to the plan that we’ve made today give us the space to make sure that the next steps towards normality that we take are safe and sustainable.”

We’re hearing now from Tánaiste Leo Varadkar who says the country will have to get through at least another winter with Covid.

He says he knows some people may have been expecting a full pause of the easing of restrictions but this was not NPHET’s recommendation. 

“It’s going to be like this for a few months, so we’re going to have to live with Covid,” he said.

On antigen tests, he says the government will be encouraging people who attend events or who are going to be in groups of crowds to start self-testing. 

Minister Eamon Ryan says that advice given by Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan to government last night was to “proceed with caution”.

The Taoiseach has confirmed that the advice from NPHET is to keep these protective measures in place until February and the government will follow that advice. 

On nightclubs, he said they will be allowed to reopen, but with a requirement for social distancing. He also said “of course people will be able to dance” at nightclubs. 

He has also now just added “what typically happens in a nightclub will happen”, to much laughter from reporters in the room. 

The Taoiseach is responding now to questions about trick or treating at Halloween and trips planned during the mid-term. He says “children are not the problem” and should be allowed to “enjoy themselves”. 

He also points out that travel is allowed and there are protective provisions in place for travel. 

Our Political Correspondent Christina Finn has sought some clarity from the Taoiseach on table service at clubs – remember he said table service only would continue at pubs. 

He says “generally speaking we want people to be offered a drink where they’re seated”, though he adds specific guidelines for nightclubs will be issued. 

The letter sent by CMO Dr Tony Holohan to government with NPHET’s recommendations has been released. 

He notes in the letter that the total number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in hospital has increased over the last four weeks.

“There is currently an average of five Covid-19 admissions to ICU per day,” he wrote.

“Deaths related to Covid-19 are relatively constant at approximately five per day. Further, in recent weeks there has been a significant number of outbreaks reported in settings with vulnerable populations, such as nursing homes, as well as a recent increase in hospital acquired infections and this continues to be closely monitored.”

Dr Holohan wrote that NPHET considered whether a pause in the easing of restrictions of 3-4 weeks would be effective. 

“However, the NPHET considered that there is unlikely to be a sufficient improvement in the disease profile over the short term and, therefore, did not believe it tenable that any pause now would result in a further easing of measures in November.”

The CMO also warned that the re-imposition of public health restrictive measures may be warranted should the application of its recommended measures not have sufficient effect on the profile of disease. 

Leaders’ Questions starting now in the Dáil.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald begins by asking about healthcare capacity, saying the country is facing a “capacity crisis”. 

“Hospitals across the state are seeing record levels of overcrowding, our emergency departments are overflowing, the trolley count is rising -it’s 416 today – health waiting lists now stand at almost a million waiting for care and almost a quarter of a million of those are waiting for more than 18 months. And yet, in the face of this crisis, and increasing Covid numbers, the response of your government in the Budget was not one single additional inpatient bed, Not one.”

She asks how the country will make it through the winter and how hospitals and their staff will cope.

Responding to McDonald, Taoiseach Micheál Martin says the Covid vaccine booster, due to be rolled out to the over 60s, will help to hold back the impact on hospitals of Covid this winter.

Martin said well over 900 beds have been budgeted for and provided for and there was a 25% increase in ICU beds in the last two years.

Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats is up next, she says today’s announcement on the lifting of restrictions was a “display of confusion, incoherence and chaos”, with just three days to go before many businesses that have been closed for almost two years reopen.

She asks why the wider use of antigen testing was not rolled out before now?

Murphy also highlights the confusion around guidelines for nightclubs.

“You can dance in a nightclub, but you can’t go to the bar for a drink, it’s very confusing – you could probably dance to the bar.”

In response Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the opposition is “always trying to pick holes” and that Covid does not respect government timelines on decisions.

“The case numbers have taken a turn for the worst and we have to respond”.

He acknowledged there will be anomalies but said there will have to be appropriate application of public health advice in different settings.

So here’s what we know:

  • Nightclubs are to reopen from Friday, but it’s not fully clear yet how they will be expected to operate.
  • People will still be expected to present their Covid certs if they are indoors at a restaurant or pub.
  • Table service at bars will also continue and numbers at tables will be limited to ten adults.
  • A phased return to workplaces will continue but a full return won’t be possible until next spring.
  • Sports stadia are set to return to full capacity from Friday.
  • Covid passes and fixed capacity limits will no longer apply to outdoor events.
  • Limits on guest numbers at weddings will be lifted.
  • The Chief Medical Officer has endorsed NIAC’s recommendation for vaccine boosters for the over 60s.

That’s all from our liveblog, but we’ll have coverage – and hopefully a bit more clarity – on the announcement over the rest of the day and week.

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