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Taoiseach: Nightclubs to close next Tuesday, 50% capacity cap for indoor events and strict rules for hospitality

NPHET recommended limits on social mixing in the weeks ahead.

Image: Julien Behal/RollingNews.ie

Updated Dec 3rd 2021, 9:20 PM

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has announced new Covid-19 restrictions from 7 December following “very stark” advice from public health officials to introduce further curbs on socialising ahead of Christmas.

In a national address this evening, Martin said the government had decided to accept the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET). Martin said the country was just “getting a handle” on the virus when this new and “potentially more dangerous” variant emerged.

NPHET had been clear that the risks of proceeding into the Christmas period without further restrictions are just too high, the Taoiseach said.

He said it was not a case of returning to the kind of lockdowns we’d experienced earlier in the pandemic, but that measures had to be brought in in order to respond to the current conditions.

“The CMO and our Public Health Experts have been exceptionally clear in their advice to Government. The risks associated with proceeding into the Christmas period without some restrictions to reduce the volume of personal contacts is just too high.

“I’ve always been straight with you as Taoiseach, that the protection of public health is the Government’s primary responsibility and that we will do whatever is needed to discharge that duty.”

From the 7 December to the 9 of January, the following measures will kick in:

  • Visits to private homes over the coming weeks should be reduced to a maximum of three other households – four households in total.
  • Indoor hospitality will keep the current midnight curfew, but no more than six per table and table service only with strict social distancing. Multiple table bookings will also not be allowed, and masks must be worn when not at the table.
  • Strict social distancing will be required in all bars and restaurants, including hotels. 
  • There will also be a limit of 50% capacity for indoor cultural, entertainment, community and sporting events. Attendees must all be fully seated and masks must be worn at all times.
  • Nightclubs will be closed during this period.
  • Covid-19 vaccine cert will be required for hotels bars, restaurants, gyms and leisure centres  -  excluding access to swimming pools or standalone swimming pool facilities.

Green Party Leader Eamon Ryan confirmed during this evening’s press briefing that outdoor events, religious services and weddings will not be impacted by the 50% capacity cap. 

The Taoiseach acknowledged that “very many people in the hospitality and entertainment industries will be bitterly disappointed by this news”

Martin said he wants to reassure those who are concerned that the government will ensure they have the financial support necessary to “weather this latest storm”.

The Pandemic Unemployment Payment will be reopening for applications from workers impacted by the latest restrictions, Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys announced following the Taoiseach’s address. 

Humphreys said her Department will work on this as a “matter of urgency” with full details to be announced over the coming days.

Arts Minister Catherine Martin also confirmed that extra supports will be put in place to support the live entertainment industry following a “huge blow” to the sector.

Martin said she secured an additional €25 million to support the entertainment sector, and the implementation of supports will be discussed by Department officials with stakeholders.

‘No gardaí calling to people’s homes’

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar noted that today’s announcement is guidance and not statutory: “There’ll be no gardaí calling to people’s homes, to see how many are inside.”

“This is guidance at a sensible and it’s flexible, and it’s non-statutory.”

Varadkar announced that Covid Response Support Scheme (CRSS) will be reformed and will provide targeted support to the hospitality sector to supplement the support they are receiving under the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme.

A weekly payment will be made to qualifying businesses in the sector whose trade is significantly impacted due to the restrictions set out in Health Regulations. Businesses that expect their turnover to be below half of what it was in 2019 will qualify for this additional support.

The payment will amount to 12% of their turnover for the same week in 2019 up to a maximum weekly payment of €5,000.

“So that’ll include restaurants, pubs, theatres, cinemas, nightclubs, for example, and other businesses too. So if you’re restricted in any way by government regulation, you can apply for the CRSS,” Varadkar said.

He added that the commercial rates waiver for these sectors will be extended into quarter one of next year. Government said this will be put in place at an additional cost of €62.3m.

Varadkar told the press briefing that it is his view that we are going to have to try to live with this virus and “we are trying to live with it”.

“And while this Christmas is not the Christmas that we had hoped it would be, it’s a better Christmas than last. There’ll be many more things that people be able to do this Christmas that they could not do last Christmas,” he said.

When asked during the press briefing what the country’s plans should the estimates around the Omicron variant be accurate, Martin said that the booster vaccination campaign is “key” alongside the commencement of the childhood vaccination programme, which is subject to NAIC advice.

The first batch of vaccines for children will arrive in the country on 15 December he said, with a second arriving in early January.

He added that socialisation matters “as has been demonstrated in the last number of weeks when people adjusted behaviours which did stabilize the prevalence of delta and the impact of delta in hospitals and on ICUs”.

The government has repeatedly said that open windows and C02 monitors provide “sufficient” ventilation in schools. Martin said this evening that some 35,000 Co2 monitors have been distributed so far.

When asked about the government’s stance on using HEPA filters to improve ventilation in some schools amid the ongoing risks posed by Covid-19, Martin said the cost “could be anything up to €80 million”.

“Ventilation is an area that we are looking at on a continuing basis but a lot of guidance was issued in respect of it all of the sectors.

Additional technical advice is available from the Department of Education and support for schools in particular situations where they may have difficulties with ventilation. If they need additional financial support that support will be there as well as the advice.

“The advice I was given to education was that the most effective ventilation is the natural ventilation.”

He added that he supports the wider use of antigen testing but it is “not a silver bullet”. He said it was one part of the “weapons at our disposal”  with it deployed in third-level education and at secondary and primary levels. 

In a message to the country’s children during his address, the Taoiseach said they have been “extraordinary”.

“You’ve had to spend less time with your friends, miss out on special occasions and you’ve been unable just to enjoy normality. Now we’re asking you to wear masks in school and soon we may be asking you to get vaccinated.

“You are a very special generation. Thank you for what you’ve done and what you continue to do.”

Concluding his address, Martin said the latest twist is “disappointing, but we are nowhere near back where we were”. 

We will get through this latest twist by drawing on the same spirit of resilience that has got us to this point, the same spirit of solidarity and trust in science that has given us the most vaccinated population in Europe, and the same spirit of community, that defines us a nation.

“We will get through it together,” he added.

‘We can’t keep acting as though the latest wave will be our last’

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said public health advice has to be heard and respected but that the real story today is “the absolute and abject failure of government to plan and to manage”.

“We said to them months ago that it was a mistake to stop contact tracing in schools. We said to them that we need widespread access to antigen testing. We and others said the issue of ventilation in schools and beyond was essential… but most grievously the government has failed to respond to the lack of capacity within our health care system.”

McDonald said that “good order and any semblance of rationality and planning” has been missing: “I am very fearful if the pattern of government and decision making now is going to be yoyo-ing in and out of a crisis with all that means for society, for people’s mental health, for people’s incomes, for people’s businesses. That is not an acceptable way to do government.”

Reacting to this evening’s announcement, Labour Health spokesperson Duncan Smith said the Government must refocus on controlling and suppressing Covid-19 “because they are quickly losing public confidence”.

“Overall though what we need now is a fundamental reset, and a new long term strategy to address the Covid-19 pandemic. This virus is not going away, and the latest variant will test our health services further,” said Smith.

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“The new restrictions announced have many people very frustrated, worried, and anxious about what happens next because despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, we still can’t live our lives as we once did.

“We can’t keep acting as though the latest wave will be our last,” Duncan said calling for a comprehensive new strategy to bring the country through the winter and protect the health service. He stressed that a recruitment effort for vaccinators and swabbers is needed.

“We need to ensure our frontline hospitals and their exhausted staff are supported, and resourced for the coming weeks,” he said, adding that “there is no silver bullet, but simple measures like HEPA air filters, and subsidised antigen tests have a part to play”.

The Vintners’ Federation of Ireland’s Chief Executive Padraig Cribben said that workers in the sector are facing a bleak Christmas.

“Earlier this year our sector was promised there would be no return to previous restrictions so today’s news is extremely disappointing. We are going backwards with little sense of what the future holds for the trade.

“Publicans are asking how we get to a stage where we can trade safely without restrictions. Right now Government is offering little advice. They have promised to meet us early in the New Year to map out the next 12 months but considering we though the crisis would be over by now the trade is in a very dark place.

“There are supports available, including the return of the CRSS but we’ll need to analyse the details to see how many of our members qualify. The reality is this is another disastrous day for the pub trade,” he said.

Last Wednesday, employment wage subsidy scheme (EWSS) rates were reduced as part of a plan to gradually wind the scheme down. Many businesses and representative groups have called for this to be reversed.

The Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) said the business supports announced this evening all far short of what is urgently needed given the scale of the crisis now facing the sector, and are calling on officials to reconsider its decision to reduce EWSS supports and to urgently restore them to November levels.

“The Government’s failure to support our sector is all the more disappointing given the assurance received that we would not face a cliff edge in terms of financial supports, but this is exactly what has happened tonight,” IHF President Elaina Fitzgerald Kane said in a statement this evening.

Normally December trade sustains the very challenging off-peak months at the start of the new year, but this has been wiped out this year. Currently, hotels are reporting average occupancy rates of 35% for December and just 13% in January and February

“The Government can dress this up whatever way it likes – but the reality is that the supports announced come nowhere close to being enough given the extent to which hotel businesses levels have been decimated in recent weeks,” said Kane.

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Adam Daly

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