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Cabinet to sign off on closure of schools until February, most construction sites set to shut down

Ministers meet this morning and an announcement is expected later today.

Image: RollingNews.ie

CABINET IS EXPECTED to sign off on the closure of schools until February, following last night’s meeting of the sub-committee on Covid-19.

It comes as the numbers in hospital with the virus exceed the previous mid-April peak.

The Cabinet sub-committee – which includes the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and senior ministers – met yesterday to discuss further restrictions.

It was decided schools will remain closed until at least 31 January. However, certain special schools and classes for those with special needs will remain open.

The government will review school closures on 30 January.

The majority of construction sites will also close, with only limited sites involved in the construction of social housing, schools and other exempted projects allowed to remain open. 

The click-and-collect exemption for non-essential retailers is also set to be scrapped. 

The current 5km limit for exercise is to stay in place.

In addition, Cabinet are set to agree that all travellers into Ireland from any country will have to provide a negative PCR test from the previous 72 hours. 

It will be implented first for those travelling from the UK and South Africa, but then extended to other countries.

The travel ban from Britain and South Africa will be extended by 48 hours and will now elapse at midnight on Friday.

After that, all travellers from those countries will have to provide a negative Covid-19 test when they arrive in Ireland.

Passengers will have to show the negative test results when boarding. 

If they travel without a prior test result, passengers could be subject to a fine, or detention.

The requirement for a negative test from other countries will be introduced at a later stage.

The full Cabinet meets today to finalise the measures and sign-off on the new rules, and an announcement is expected later today. 

Schools and construction sites

Yesterday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he is in agreement with Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan that there is an issue with more than one million people being “on the go” travelling to schools, given the rapidity of the spread of coronavirus.

“Opening schools means that a million people are out there in the community. And given the rapidity and the spread of the disease, and given what we’re witnessing elsewhere in other jurisdictions, in terms of that rapidity, and that growth, one has to really measure the advisability of doing that.”

It’s understood a number of ministers believe the entire construction industry should remain open.

Speaking yesterday, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe stressed the importance of the construction sector to the economy. 

“From an employment point of view alone, I do believe that keeping construction open will be a very important part of how we can help our economy recover as we move through the year. But we’ll have to hear from NPHET in terms of what could be the consequences of doing that.”

In an interview with TheJournal.ie before Christmas and ahead of the latest significant surge in the virus, Housing Minister Darragh Murphy said construction would remain open throughout. 

“Yes, 100%. We’re real clear on that, that construction, and its ancillary services, so support services for construction, are essential services, and they remain open in the current restrictions,” he said. The minister said the industry has adapted well and is operating safely.

However, it is understood that some in Government circles believe that when schools are closed and hospital operations are cancelled, it’s difficult to argue that construction is essential.

The construction industry’s reaction

Speaking on Newstalk this morning, Tom Parlon, Director General of the Construction Industry Federation, said that that he was “quite shocked” to hear of the new restrictions.

“The last lockdown caused us to lose 5,000 new homes out of production, and that’s why we’re trailing behind here. The output was cut by about 10%, which would be to the tune of about €3 billion. So it is quite a severe hit on the industry and on the economy.

I was talking to a Minister last night, and he assured me that housing will continue, infrastructure like water and health projects will continue, and education projects will continue.

“The UK announced a lockdown this week – they haven’t closed construction sites.  Scotland hasn’t closed construction sites, Northern Ireland construction sites haven’t been closed.”

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, developer Michael O’Flynn said that “no other country in Europe has stopped construction” because of the Covid-19 pandemic, bar Italy as it first grappled with the virus in the Spring.

“It is seen as something that can operate… There has to be a logic, a consistency of approach here. We are doing it safely, we are doing it differently, as we should.”

Deputy Mayor of South County Dublin, David McManus said that while social housing sites are expected to remain open, “all housing sites under construction are essential to resolve our severe shortage of housing, both private and social homes”.

New restrictions hoped to reduce movement of people

The Taoiseach said yesterday that suppressing the virus will mean a significant reduction in the mobility of people back to the levels that we had in Ireland in March.

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“In other words, we really have to say to people you’ve got to stay at home over the next number of weeks.”

While schools are due to remain closed this month, there are concerns that they could remain closed for longer, with one minister stating the 31 January is just an indicative date. 

Any services that close now, including schools, could remain shut until the most vulnerable have been vaccinated and case numbers are down to a low level. 

In order for some parts of the economy to reopen, swabbing of close contacts would have to be back up and running so that the numbers would be comparable to other periods in the pandemic. Among ministers, there is a lot of caution around easing off on the restrictions until ICU numbers are back to around 30 and hospitalisaions are below 250. 

It is speculated that this won’t happen before the end of February, maybe March.

As of 2pm yesterday, 840 Covid-19 patients were in hospital, of which 76 were in ICU. 

While the issue of imposing a curfew, as has been done in other countries, was not on the agenda of last night’s meeting, it is understood that some ministers are in favour of introducing one. 

A memo is being brought to Cabinet by Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys today seeking approval to maintain the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) at its current rates until 31 March.

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