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Back-to-school, live gigs and a winter plan: What can we expect in the next phase of reopening?

The Taoiseach and his government have a balancing act to play.

Crowds at Féile Belfast last week.
Crowds at Féile Belfast last week.
Image: Youtube/DMC Event Promotions

THAT OLD FAMILIAR back to school feeling will be felt by more than just students next week, as the country awaits another Covid-19 announcement and the government prepares for the return of the Dáil. 

As if it were timed to officially end the summer, Taoiseach Micheál Martin confirmed this week that a roadmap for the easing of restrictions would be published on 31 August.  

That date is Tuesday-week, meaning a familiar choreography of a NPHET meeting on Wednesday (25th) followed by a Cabinet Covid-19 sub-committee on Friday (27th). 

It is expected that officials will then work through the proposed plan ahead of a full Cabinet meeting and subsequent announcement on 31 August. 

Despite the announcement ushering in the autumn months, the news itself will likely be positive.

The Taoiseach is promising “a comprehensive roadmap” for how restrictions will be lifted over the coming months and the beginning of “a new era in the management of Covid-19″.

Martin said the roadmap will provide a plan up to “hopefully to the end of the year, maybe beyond”. 

The major outstanding issue is the plan, or lack thereof, for the live music and entertainment industry. Advocates within the sector have been pleading for a specific roadmap for their sector for some time but nothing so far has been signed-off. 

Culture Minister Catherine Martin and her officials had a roadmap ready a number of weeks ago but she was not in a position to get it on the agenda of the Cabinet Covid-19 sub-committee as she was not among the ministers that can attend the meeting. 

She has again sought to be at the meetings and it is understood that she will be in attendance at the meeting next Friday when the live industry is set to be discussed.

This does not however mean that live gigs will resume straight away, with sources suggesting that it may be towards the middle or end of September when this happens.  

The sector has for some time looked like the forgotten child as various sectors reopened over the summer months but additional pressure is now being brought to bear.

This is largely because comparisons are difficult to ignore with the massively increased crowds at sporting events and the regularity of live gigs north of the border.

This weekend, 40,000 people will attend Croke Park for the All-Ireland Hurling final,  with another 40,000 at the football in three weeks’ time. 

Irish bands Kodaline and Fontaines DC have each played large gigs in Northern Ireland in the past week with concert organisers in the Republic pointing out that they cannot even sell tickets nevermind host an event. 

At a gig in Belfast last night Kodaline said it was emotional to be playing to a non-socially distanced crowd for the first time in over a year and a half.

At one point they turned to each other and said “lads, we’re actually playing a gig here” as if they were in disbelief.

A negative Covid test or proof of vaccination is required to gain entry to gigs in Northern Ireland, masks are not compulsory in the crowd.

Red list

Part of the delay in putting concrete plans in place for when live events can return is that the government is expressing some concern about relatively high Covid-19 case numbers. 

Ireland’s incidence rate is currently second-highest in the EU  and, despite having vaccination rates that also eclipse almost all EU colleagues, the government is believed to be concerned about the potential for super-spreader events.  

Public health officials had previously expected the Delta wave to peak in the third week of August but it is now expected to top out in September. 

PastedImage-92063 Source: ECDC

“There’s a very high incidence, people need to take this on board, there’s a very high incidence out there and that has had an impact on our hospitalisation, every Covid case has a disproportionate impact on hospitals and our health services,” the Taoiseach told RTÉ’s Six One on Thursday. 

Speaking about this yesterday, HSE CEO Paul Reid said Covid-19 cases in hospitals have “hovered between 24o and 260″ over the past 10 days:

With the trajectory of the virus that we see in the community at the minute, over 2,000 cases on several days, we do expect that lag effect which we’ve seen where you have cases high and it takes about eight to 10 days to see the impact on hospitalisations, the likely indications on the trajectory of the virus and community right now is that hospitalisation numbers will rise.

Reid added, however, that the country is “in a much better position” compared to January when there were 2,000 people in hospital and only urgent non-Covid care was being undertaken.

Yesterday, 2,098 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed, the second time this week that the daily number as crept above 2,000. 

Back to school… and the office?

The balancing act between cases, vaccinations and reopening will be hugely affected next month by both the return of schools and an expected gradual return to offices.

For that to happen, public transport also has to increase to 100% capacity (it’s currently at 75%) with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar previously indicating that he wasn’t in favour of a full return to offices at the same time as schools. 

An additional factor over the coming weeks that wasn’t an issue last year is the return of students to third-level campuses.

Cabinet 006 Taoiseach Micheal Martin. Source: Leah Farrell

In June, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris published a plan for the safe return to on-campus activity for this academic year.

At a minimum, the plan allows for workshops, tutorials, classroom-based learning and smaller lectures.  There will also be a “common-sense approach” to college bars, canteens, sports and social clubs.

At a maximum, the plan allows for large-scale lectures with “modifications”.

The Department of Further and Higher Education has said that, given the diversity of the sector, “it is essential that institutions can make their own plans within this framework for reopening, recognising their own local context and physical infrastructure, and communicate those plans to their learners and staff”.

This approach has been endorsed by the Chief Medical Officer.

In a statement on 3 August, Irish Universities Association (IUA) and the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) and RCSI issued a joint statement on their plans for a safe return to campuses with maximum onsite presence.

The statement confirms plans to “actively manage” lectures in large theatres halls in particular either by putting limits on occupancy or duration.

While the above plans have been issued, individual colleges are still finalising their plans for the return to campus.

snowden 210 DCU's Helix theatre in 2018. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

DCU, for example, is working to make this year a “mainly on-campus experience for students”.

In a statement to The Journal, it said it’s planning for the catering, sporting, library, student support and administrative areas of the university to be fully operational on campus when students return.

There will be Covid-19 safety measures in place, such as the wearing of face coverings indoors, hand sanitisation units in every building and enhanced cleaning with antiviral wipes in all classrooms.

DCU has said students should plan to attend face-to-face classes in Semester One with an assessment carried out of each room layout.

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University College Cork has said “on-campus attendance will vary by discipline but every effort is being made to maximise on-campus attendance within public health guidelines”.

Lecture numbers will be subject to a number of variable factors, including capacity in lecture halls and public health guidelines.

Maynooth University told The Journal it is “committed to the widest possible opening up of campus for 2021-2022 within government guidelines”.

The university is planning a return to on-campus teaching for most lectures and classes, with measures aimed at “reducing the overall number of people on campus at any time”.

It has said lectures of up to 250 people, practicals and tutorials will be on campus.

However, the university plans to have some remote teaching in place for “very large” lectures “in order to reduce the overall number of people on campus at any time”.

Pilot project

A number of universities are also participating in a pilot Covid-19 rapid testing project.

The project, called UniCoV, will conduct a largescale analysis of testing technologies for use in surveillance of Covid-19 and prevention in higher education settings.

These will include rapid antigen testing, saliva-based PCR testing and wastewater surveillance. The findings will inform the development of early warning systems for future outbreak prevention and control.

Staff and students can enrol across four universities – NUI Galway, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and University College Cork.

Testing will involve volunteers providing saliva samples twice weekly and dropping them off at on-campus collection points.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy, Hayley Halpin and Christina Finn

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