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Strict restrictions set to remain in place until May as all primary school students to return by 15 March

Progress in driving down Covid-19 numbers is slowing down in Ireland.

Senior ministers met last night to discuss the latest Covid developments.
Senior ministers met last night to discuss the latest Covid developments.
Image: Julien Behal Photography

Updated Feb 19th 2021, 1:30 PM

NO MAJOR EASING of restrictions beyond the re-opening of schools are expected until May.

It’s understood that the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid-19 heard last night that the country won’t be moving from Level 5 to Level 4 restrictions for some time. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar asked people to “dig deep” and to stick with restrictions so schools could open; while the Taoiseach said in an interview that the effort would be “worth it”.

The reopening of schools

The phased re-opening of schools is expected over March and early April.

Speaking this morning on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman said primary school students were likely to return in two phases. 

It’s expected that junior infants, senior infants, first and second class will return on 1 March. All primary school children will return to school from 15 March, when third, fourth, fifth and sixth class pupils return.

“We’re conscious of the need to balance the gradual re-opening and gradual increase of movement around the economy but also the real importance of getting children back into that sort of routine,” O’Gorman said. 

The majority of secondary school students, however, won’t be returning to school until after the Easter holidays.

Leaving Cert students, however, are being prioritised and will likely return next month. Final decisions regarding schools are set to be made at Cabinet next week. 

‘We’ll have to see where we are’

In an interview with the Irish Mirror yesterday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that “it’s been a long lockdown already and I would say to people it’s worth it”.

“We are looking at a continuation of severe restrictions right into April,” he said. “We’ve already certainly indicated that beyond Easter we’ll look at it again but until the end of April you can look at significant restrictions and we’ll review it after that then because we’ll have to see where we are.”

Speaking on the News at One today, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said: “There is hope on the horizon, we’re just asking people to dig deep, to stick with us, to stick with the restrictions, so that we don’t jeopardise the reopening of schools and childcare in March.”

In response to reports of restrictions extending until May, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald criticised the Government leaks and “mixed messaging”.

“People have demonstrated time and again, that they are up for it, that they will, in fact, ‘dig deep’ and that they will do everything they can to weather this storm.

“What cannot be tolerated is the kind of dithering and mixed messages and leaks and speculation and then more speculation that adds tremendously to the uncertainty and to the stress that people are experiencing.”

The drop in cases has slowed

The news of no significant easing until May comes as public health officials said last night that while Covid-19 numbers are still going in the right direction, progress has now slowed down. 

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Professor Philip Nolan, chair of the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, said that this is likely due to the increased prevalence of the UK B117 variant, which he said is now 90% of all Covid-19 cases in Ireland.

“We are maintaining suppression, but it’s precarious,” said Nolan, who estimated the reproduction number to be between 0.65 and 0.85.

In a letter to government last Thursday, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said he had expected case numbers to be between 300 and 100 a day in mid-March.

According to Nolan, modelling now shows that case numbers are expected to fall between 400 and 500 cases per day at the beginning of March, then falling to between 200 and 350 in the middle of March, if the reproduction number can be kept between 0.7 and 0.9.

The government is expected to announce its new plan for living with Covid-19 next week. 

It is hoped that vaccination roll out will significant ramp up while strict restrictions remain in place. Varadkar said during his interview today that the Government was expecting to get close to 1.25 million doses of vaccines in April, saying that this represented “hope on the horizon”. 

The vaccination of people within the over-85 age group began earlier this week. 

With reporting from Christina Finn and Gráinne Ní Aodha

About the author:

Sean Murray

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