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Varadkar wants to set 31 March as a deadline to end almost all legal Covid restrictions

The EU Digital Covid Cert would be still needed for international travel in Europe.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Jan 18th 2022, 5:55 PM

TÁNAISTE LEO VARADKAR has told a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party that he hopes all restrictions, including the domestic use of Covid passes for pubs and restaurants, will be lifted by the end of March.

He expressed his wish to set 31 March as a deadline to end almost all legal restrictions. 

Varadkar noted we may have to keep some measures another while longer such as mask wearing in crowded places, staying at home when symptomatic and Covid passes for international travel.

Emergency Covid legislation which underpins the restrictions falls on 31 March.  

Earlier today, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said that while there is a provision to extend the emergency powers by three months, the health minister has said there is a need to relinquish the emergency powers.

“I think it’s likely that that measures will come in before the end of the month,” Donnelly told RTÉ’s News at One.

Donnelly said he hopes the legislation will lapse at the end of March, stating that it is possible mask wearing on public transport and in shops will also fall by April.

“These are emergency powers. It’s emergency legislation, there’s a sunset clause, which is really important,” he said adding that the hope is come the end of March the emergency powers will no longer be needed.

The health minister also raised the possibility of some restrictions on hospitality and live events being eased by this weekend. 

Donnelly said he believes government will decide to move ahead with the easing of some the restrictions before the end of the month.

Speaking about the progress made, the Tánaiste said the fact that Omicron is less severe and that a high level of immunity has built up due to vaccination and infection. 

This meant that hospitalisations, ICU numbers and deaths did not increase to the same extent as in previous waves, he said.

He said this gives a strong degree of confidence that we can ease restrictions quickly over the next few weeks.

He said that by and large, the government has got most things right which he said is evident from case fatality ratios, the number of deaths per million in population, the number of people in hospital per million, the percentage of people vaccinated and the impact on our economy and public finances. 

Ireland has performed very well by European and world standards by almost every measure, he told members, later speaking about how difficult Ireland’s restrictions have been on social life particularly for young adults and single people.

Varadkar said we must continue to be prepared for a new severe variant of concern later in the year and that means being prepared for another round of vaccination if that’s necessary, as well being able to switch back on test/trace/isolate programmes. T

He also mentioned investing in improved air quality in buildings and continued increases in hospital bed capacity and ICUs.

Easing restrictions

Those working in hospitality have called for the 8pm closing time to be scrapped this week, rather than waiting for easing the rules on 30 January. 

Donnelly said if the advice from the public health experts allows for the easing of restrictions, the government will “move as quickly as we can”.

“We have to ease the burden on people,” he said, adding that those in hospitality and the live events sector have suffered a lot under the current rules. 

“Anything we can do to ease the burden quickly will be looked at seriously by government,” he said.

He said restrictions will be ended “the moment the public health rationale goes for them”.

Referencing the Six Nations matches, he said there is nothing he would like more than to hear the roar of 50,000 people at the start of February.

“These things are being looked at at the moment and again, we’ve just got to get the balance right… what people are saying to me is yes, yes of course we need to move forward and we need to put Omicron behind us. But don’t be foolish, don’t move too quickly, in a way that causes risks,” he said.

Donnelly told RTÉ’s News at One that the numbers in ICU have remained steady, adding that they now believe the country has moved beyond the peak of the Omicron infection. 

Conversations are currently underway across government to lift restrictions as soon as possible, he said.

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Return to normal life

“What I want to see, what we all want to see, is the quickest possible return to normal life and the the lifting of all of the restrictions where possible,” he added, stating that it has to be done in a safe and balanced way.

While it had been expected that Cabinet would not make a decision on easing restrictions until next week, government sources have said a Friday Cabinet meeting is “not out of the question”. 

An an early easing of restrictions before the end of the month was not being ruled out as of last night, amid calls from those in hospitality calling for a rule change before February.

Separately, Minister of State for Public Procurement and e-Government Ossian Smyth said there are no plans for the use of the Digital Covid Certificate updated with booster shot information to be used domestically in areas such as hospitality.

He said he does not want to see the passes being needed on an ongoing basis for areas such as hospitality.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne programme, Covid passes will still be needed for international travel, stating that it’s important that all Covid certificates are updated by 1 February, as that is the date when new EU travel rules come into force.

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