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covid restrictions

Another reopening delay: Back to basics and back to the dancefloor

An extract from The Journal’s coronavirus newsletter.

This is an extract from a recent edition of The Journal’s coronavirus newsletter, which cuts through the noise and misinformation to give you clear, accessible facts about the coronavirus, Ireland’s fight to contain it, as well as developments further afield. 

This is your one-stop shop for Covid news during a time when it can be hard or overwhelming to try and stay up to date with the latest.

You can read the full edition here, sign up to receive the newsletter here or at the bottom of the page.

SO HERE WE are again, wading through another set of new tweaks to the Covid restrictions.

A wider reopening of society this Friday is still happening, but in a less ambitious way than was originally envisaged.

The changes were announced in one of the more confusing government press conferences, and it was one that may have missed the most important point.

The sudden change in the trajectory of Covid over the past few weeks, and the associated sustained increase in the number of people falling seriously ill with the virus, fueled concern within government that it may need to cool the jets on reopening.

Having previously tracked on the optimistic side of NPHET’s modelling on the possible spread of Covid, we’ve now veered more towards the pessimistic scenario.

NPHET met on Monday and agreed that the conditions for a full reopening had not been met (read their advice to government in full here).

Previously this could have meant another lockdown, but the Covid landscape is different now.

A complete pause or new restrictions were both considered, however this is not what health experts ultimately advised.

Instead, the government will now proceed largely as planned but with the retention of measures in some areas.

Here’s what we’re looking at:

  • Requirements such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and the collection of close contact data in certain situations will remain in place across society
  • The Covid pass will also remain for indoor hospitality and events (for the latter, mixed immunity status will still be permitted)
  • The vaccine booster programme will be extended to all people over the age of 60 - NIAC gave the green light to that last night
  • The current testing regime will not be scaled down, and the testing of fully vaccinated people who are close contacts will resume but using antigen tests
  • The wider use of antigen tests will also be examined (where have we heard that before?)
  • A return to the workplace can continue but on a phased and cautious basis for specific business requirements rather than the full return originally envisaged (the fine print of what this means still to be ironed out)
  • Guidelines on mask wearing, social distancing, and table service will remain for hospitality, as well as a limit of max 10 people per table (15 including children)
  • Pubs and restaurants can return to normal opening hours
  • Capacity limits on religious services are being lifted but other preventative measures are to remain in place (such as the 11.30pm closing time for weddings)
  • Capacity limits will not apply for indoor events but protective measures must remain in place, as well as pods of six if the crowd is a mix of vaccinated, recovered and unvaccinated people
  • Outdoor events and group activities can take place with no capacity limits or Covid pass requirements - that includes stadium events
  • Attendees at indoor live music, drama, live entertainment and sports events should remain seated (the guidelines stress that standing at your seat is permitted)
  • Nightclubs – one of the only parts of society to have remained closed since March 2020 – can reopen, but… well, it’s complicated, more on that in a second.

These measures are due to remain in place until at least February 2022.

One thing Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan made clear in his letter to government was that NPHET believes keeping the hospitality industry open hinges on robust implementation of the Covid pass.

But the government didn’t outline how exactly this advice would be acted upon, or if there would be a renewed focus on encouraging the remaining 370,000 unvaccinated (but vaccine-eligible) people to get a jab (you can find a detailed explanation here from Dr Cillian De Gascun on why, with so many people vaccinated, we are still seeing rising Covid cases).

There was a lot of fuzziness around the edges of what was announced in general. Out of all the wishy-washy government announcements about seemingly contradictory Covid restrictions that we’ve seen, this one is definitely up there.

Employers and employees who are currently working from home have been left with little guidance on whether Friday will change anything – on the face of it, little if anything will. More on that here.

I don’t even know where to begin with the nightclub conundrum. Taoiseach Micheál Martin, when asked for clarity on what public health measures will be required, said ‘what traditionally happens in a nightclub will continue to happen’.

NO FEE  POST CABINET PRESS CONF JB6 Taoiseach Micheál Martin speaking during this afternoon's press conference. Julien Behal Julien Behal

That was followed by a laugh, which I’m sure wasn’t hugely welcome to people working in a sector closed since last year. I could share more of what the Taoiseach said at this afternoon’s press conference, but none of it is any clearer in outlining what the situation in nightclubs will be from Friday onwards.

Basically, they will reopen on Friday… but how exactly it will all work is yet to be decided. See more here.

On the face of it, the government’s plan for Friday’s reopening should be quite simple – capacity limits are being removed but protective measures must remain in place – but there is a sense of the government tying itself up in knots and creating a whole array of hoops for the public to jump through as part of this next stage of reopening.

It also serves to detract from two other core problems.

Firstly, the health service is facing a winter like no other. That may sound a bit hyperbolic, but the combinations of pressures over the coming months really will be unique.

Secondly, NPHET’s letter gives a strong sense of the need to go back to basics - ‘hit the reset button’, as HSE boss Paul Reid said.

That doesn’t mean shutting ourselves off from society and a return to Zoom quizzes, but rather, as Dr Holohan put it, “a cultural shift towards embedding individual and collective strategies to mitigate against Covid-19 and other respiratory infections”.

This starts with the simple elements: ensuring good ventilation, wearing a mask, isolating when you have symptoms, keeping a distance, and washing your hands.

He also recommended workplaces, retail, and other businesses refresh their Covid signage and called for more consistent messaging from all public bodies.

That is where the key to success over the new few months and into the years ahead really lies – that’s not an epiphany from on high; Tony Holohan didn’t return from an autumn stroll up Mount Sinai last week with it etched on a stone tablet.

It always has been key, but now it must be brought into sharper focus than ever with society reopening at such scale.

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