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Taoiseach says there will be restrictions for six months, schools may not reopen until March

Micheál Martin said he is concerned about the UK strain of the virus, and vaccine delivery delays.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin
Taoiseach Micheál Martin
Image: Julien Behal Photography/RollingNews.ie

Updated Jan 23rd 2021, 2:55 PM

THE TAOISEACH HAS said that Covid-19 restrictions will be in place for at least the first six months of the year.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Brendan O’Connor programme, Micheál Martin said the government is taking a “cautious, conservative” approach to lifting restrictions “for the first half of this year”, as Ireland deals with the third wave of the pandemic.

However, he said this does not mean six months of “lockdown”.

“By the summer we will be in a changed environment because of the large-scale vaccination that will have been achieved by then.”

Martin stated: “We will be witnessing far more prolonged restrictions than we have to date”, adding that the restrictions will be reviewed every four weeks.

“Case numbers have to be well below, have to be in the hundreds, if not 100-200 (before restrictions are eased). That low.”

He said he is concerned about the UK strain of the virus, which is thought to be more transmissible, and vaccine delivery delays.

“I’m thinking of the variant, that’s what my concern is. It will become the dominant variant here. It is at 62% of all cases, it transmits more easily.

“If we have mass mobilisation and mass socialisation, it will spread again,” Martin said.

Yesterday 52 more deaths and 2,371 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Ireland. In total, 184,279 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed here, along with 2,870 deaths.

About 1,900 Covid patients are currently in hospital with over 200 in ICU.

Schools

In terms of schools reopening, Martin warned that schools may remain closed until St Patrick’s Day. “The full million (students) won’t be back” by this date, he said.

“Because of where we are now in terms of the pandemic, the idea of mobilising one million people was the main reason not to open them.”

Martin said “a range of options” will be looked at in terms of Leaving Cert exams, adding that an update is expected in the coming weeks.

He said discussions between the Department of Education and unions are ongoing, and that children with additional needs remain the priority.

Martin added that special education may resume in February. He said there was a failure in delivering this during the week as planned, but “unions acted in good faith” and there is a “shared determination” to make progress on this issue.

“I would like to think in the coming weeks there would be some movement on it.”

In a later statement, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on education, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, said he hoped the Taoiseach’s comments that schools will not be fully open before mid-March is not “another instance of his government thinking aloud without proper engagement and planning”.

“I was astonished when I heard the Taoiseach state that schools would not fully reopen until St Patrick’s Day. I am sure hundreds of thousands of parents, students, and staff were similarly taken aback.

“Just days ago, the government’s position was that schools would reopen on February 1st. While it has been apparent for some time that this was unlikely, the leap to a date more than seven weeks away is extraordinary.”

Ó Laoghaire said he hopes “there is a plan of some kind underpinning this, and that it has been discussed with at least some stakeholders”.

“Otherwise it is thinking out loud and flying kites,” he added.

Travel

Martin also confirmed that the Cabinet will next week discuss mandatory quarantine for passengers arriving in Ireland from abroad.

“There will be quarantining for those coming in,” he said, adding the no-one should be travelling for non-essential reasons.

A Cabinet sub-committee meeting will consider introducing further travel restrictions on Monday, before a full Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Currently people arriving in Ireland must have evidence of a negative PCR test 72 hours before arrival. They are then advised to restrict their movements, while those arriving from Britain, South Africa or South America are told to self-isolate for 14 days.

Vaccine rollout

During a phone call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday, he said they shared their concerns over the new variant.

“There is a race against time … on one hand, with the vaccination rollout. On the other hand, the degree to which to variant will the impact on the transmissibility and the severity of the illness.”

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He also said that the rollout of the vaccine to over-70s may be delayed because of production issues with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Martin said the government was waiting on this vaccine and that its delay will “put us in a problem”.

“AstraZeneca was going to be the catalyst to be allowed to move from low level to mass vaccination,” Martin said.

However he said it is still the government’s aim to deliver mass vaccination by the end of June, adding that April, May and June will be key months in terms of the rollout.

“There are contractual arrangements between the European Commission and AstraZeneca, and I expect some very robust meetings in the coming days and engagements between the European Commission and AstraZeneca.”

Yesterday British pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca has warned that supplies of its Covid-19 vaccine to Europe will be “lower than originally anticipated” due to reduced production at a manufacturing site.

The vaccine it developed with the University of Oxford in England is already being rolled out across the UK, but the European Union has not yet approved its use. It is expected to make a decision by 29 January.

In a statement issued yesterday evening, the Irish Department of Health said it was aware of the issue and “monitoring” the developments.

“The Department of Health and the HSE representatives are monitoring the situation closely and will attend a future European Commission meeting with AstraZeneca scheduled for next week,” the statement noted.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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