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Dublin: 7°C Tuesday 13 April 2021

Easing of restrictions may be brought forward if Covid-19 figures remain low, says Taoiseach

He asked people to “hold firm” until the first week of June.

IF THE FIGURES relating to Covid-19 continue in a downward trajectory, the government will be confident in “bringing forward some of the things from later phases”, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said today.

“We are only in Phase One. One of the reasons the phase lasts three weeks is in order that we can have proper data. We will not really know what effect the easing of the restrictions has had for about two weeks.

“If the numbers are still going in the right direction in the first week of June, that would give us an assurance that we could accelerate some aspects of the plan, but to do that earlier would be acting without evidence and would be premature,” he said.

He asked people to “hold firm” until the first week of June.

“If the numbers are still going in the right direction at that point, we can have some confidence about bringing forward some of the things from later phases,” he said.

The Dáil has today heard a number of calls for the roadmap to be modified. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has said the distance that someone can travel from their home should be looked at again. He said there was no serious justification for the 5km and the 20km limit.

Meanwhile, a number of politicians, such as Junior Minister Finian McGrath have argued for the social distancing rule to be reduced from two metres to one metre. Labour’s Alan Kelly made the same call stating that it will have to be reduced in the future. He added that it was hindering and delaying the re-opening of non-Covid-19 healthcare.

Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan told ministers today that the rule would not be changing at the moment. He previously said that the rule would be kept under review, like all other measures.

When asked about the two metre rule, Varadkar said:

“I am not sure if it is possible to get a political consensus on the 1m or 2m guidance or the two-hour close contact rule.”

Debate about the two-hour rule also took place in the Dáil today, whereby TDs questioned the reasoning behind advice given to the Oireachtas last week that ministers should not be in the Dáil chamber for longer than two hours, as it would make them a close contact if someone in the chamber subsequently tested positive for the virus.

That resulted in the health minister, Simon Harris, being unable to sit for a number of sessions last week, with the concerns about the rule resulting in similar restrictions this week.

As the virus depletes in the community, “we are able to take more calculated risks”, said the Taoiseach. 

“What might have been the right thing to do two or three weeks ago may be different now and may be different again in the next couple of weeks.

“We should accept that it is a risk, however.  There is a genuine risk that if there is any minister or politician here for more than two hours and somebody else in the chamber or they test positive, then all of the people in the chamber will be required to self-isolate for 14 days. That is the truth.  The objective is to make sure that the Government is held to account,” he said.

A number of TDs took issue with the matter, stating that the rule should not be used as an excuse for ministers not to answer questions.

The Taoiseach said the two metre rule and the two-hour contact tracing rule might be an issue the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee could consider.

“It might be the best forum for political consensus to be found, if it can be found.  I am not sure, however, if it can. In the meantime, we will follow the advice of the public health emergency team.”

Today there was also a testy exchange when Rise TD Paul Murphy asked Leo Varadkar if he could live on less than €350 per week – the amount of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment.

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Murphy said: “My argument is very simple. Before you go and cut anybody’s pay who is on €350 per week – you should see what it is like to live on it.”

Murphy said attempts to cut the payment are comparable to when Varadkar set up a welfare cheats hotline during his time as Social Protection minister.

“The same scaremongering about people scamming the system, the attempt to divide and rule workers and the underlying motivation to get people to work for poverty wages,”  Murphy added.

The Taoiseach said the Cabinet will discuss the matter of extending the pandemic unemployment payment as well as the wage subsidy scheme.

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