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Tánaiste says 'final call' on further reopening on 5 July can’t be made until next week

NPHET is due to advise the Government next Thursday on the epidemiological situation in Ireland.

Image: TOM HONAN

Updated Jun 23rd 2021, 1:28 PM

TÁNAISTE LEO VARADKAR has said the government cannot make the “final call” on whether there can be further easing of restrictions on 5 July until next week, when it receives the most up to date advice from public health experts.

Earlier today, Health Minister Donnelly has said it’s “too early to say” if a further reopening of society will be delayed by a few weeks due to the Delta variant of Covid-19. 

There has been a focus this week on how the Delta variant could impact the reopening of indoor hospitality on 5 July. 

The variant now accounts for 20% of all of last week’s case numbers. 

NPHET is due to advise the Government next Thursday on the epidemiological situation in Ireland, ahead of the next phase of reopening due on Monday 5 July.

Speaking to reporters today, Varadkar said it government will make decision when it has the most recent data available, stating that “as things stand” the plan is still to ease restrictions on 5 July. 

However, he said, like all the other announcements, the “final call” can only be made a few days beforehand.

The government always gives an indicative date, he said, “but that is never confirmed until the week before”, he added. Varadkar said such a decision can only be made when the government has the latest epidemiological data and the latest advice from NPHET.

A number of key metrics will be considered when making a decision, such as the number of cases, which he said is falling. He said it is also encouraging that hospital numbers are falling, and the vaccination programme is “going very well”. 

He said variants of concern will also have to be considered, stating that the “dark cloud” is the Delta variant.

The government is looking to data in the UK, which is far more advanced in its reopening than Ireland, and has a higher rate of the Delta variant, said Varadkar.

He said it is concerning that there has been between a 30%-40% increase in cases and hospitalisations there over the last week, but also highlighted that this is “from a very low base”. 

When asked about mixed messaging from the government about the reopening in July, Varadkar said: “I am sorry if it is confusing.”

“I appreciate how annoying and frustrating this is for people,” he added. 

He acknowledged that businesses needed clarity around the reopening date, as well as couples who have booked their big day in the expectation they would be allowed to have 50 guests instead of 25.

“I totally get how horrible the uncertainty is,” he said, saying that we are living in an uncertain environment right now. 

He reiterated that the government would not be able to “press go” on the reopening on 5 July until after next week’s Cabinet meeting, but said the one thing he cannot give right now is certainty.

“The decision is not made,” he said.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Donnelly said the concern he has is that “we are now surrounded by the Delta variant”. 

“We know it’s significantly more contagious. We believe that it is a lot more severe, up to two and a half times more likely to hospitalise somebody,” Donnelly said. 

“And we know that at least for the first dose, it is less susceptible to vaccines. So this is a very, very serious variant,” he said. 

When asked whether Government may delay the further reopening of society by a couple of weeks, Donnelly said “at this point, it’s too early to say”. 

The Health Minister said the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) will next week provide an analysis to the situation and there will also be an economic analysis done.

“Cabinet will look at that, and then make decisions in the best interests of a sustainable reopening,” he said. 

It’s understood the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan has been speaking with Donnelly and indicated a delay in reopening indoor hospitality could prevent hospitalisations.

The health minister’s comments come as Taoiseach Micheál Martin indicated to The Irish Independent that he “wouldn’t be afraid” to delay the 5 July reopening if NPHET advised as such next week.

A number of government sources said they were surprised at the Taoiseach’s comments as that was not the mood music at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, where the plan for reopening seemed to be on track.

However, it is understood that following yesterday’s meeting, indications from public health experts was that a cautious recommendation was set to be given to the government next week when they meet ahead of Thursday’s Cabinet meeting.

“The writing seems to be on the wall from NPHET’s point of view”, said one senior source who added that the CMO told the health minister that he is worried about the variant, and that a few weeks deferral could prevent a rise in hospitalisations and give more time to get people vaccinated.

They added that that there was absolutely nothing definitive yet on delaying the reopening on 5 July.

Sources have said that such a decision would not be an easy one for government, stating that younger people in particular would be very angry at any delay.

Other government sources have indicated that they were rather shocked at the Taoiseach’s words this morning, stating that Ireland will be seen as outliers in Europe due to other regions such Northern Ireland, Scotland and Britain, as well as other EU nations, all having the dominant Delta variant, and who are able to carry on with indoor dining, while also accommodating thousands of people at large events such as football matches.

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They said the Taoiseach’s comments appeared to be teeing up NPHET to pull the break and held the view that Martin is being “overly cautious”.

“He’s certainly made it a lot easier for NPHET to advise to delay,” said another source.

They highlighted that NPHET recommended the 5 July date, and questioned if a delay of 2-3 weeks would only be for that time period, or would the health experts extend it further.

They said government would be reassured if the UK doesn’t end up in serious trouble in a few weeks, stating if they can manage the variant, and also have indoor dining and half full stadiums, we should be able to as well.

Travel

Meanwhile, Ireland has signed up to the Digital Green Certificate system and the country aims to adhere to European regulations around travel in the coming weeks.

Officials are said to be “working around the clock” to get the EU system up and running in time for 19 July, the date on which the government has said it hopes non-essential international travel can return.

The certificate will facilitate free movement of EU citizens during the pandemic in the European Union and European Economic Area countries such as Norway and Iceland.

A comprehensive campaign on the new EU Digital Certificate is expected to be launched by the government ahead of 19 July.

It is expected to outline that those who have been vaccinated, those who have received a negative PCR test result (or antigen test for some countries), or those who have had Covid-19 in the past nine months will be able to travel abroad. 

However, there are now concerns that public health experts will warn against resuming travel in July, with sources stating that they expect more mixed messaging on the issue.

Addressing the issue of reopening travel, Donnelly said this morning that it current government policy is that the EU Digital Certificate will include the three criteria noted above. 

However, he added that “as with everything with Covid, were we to get strong public health advice to the contrary”, it could be reexamined. 

Donnelly said the conversation about further narrowing the criteria for travel “isn’t currently happening”. 

“What we know is the Chief Medical Officer has raised his concerns from a public health perspective but government policy is all three criteria. If we get strong public health advice, obviously we will take that under consideration,” he said. 

With reporting by Christina Finn

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