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'I do anticipate it will be possible to holiday in Ireland' - Varadkar says re-opening will be gradual and cautious

The Tánaiste says talks are underway to extend the wage subsidy and PUP into the summer months.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

STAYCATIONS IN IRELAND “will be possible this summer”, according to Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. 

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said earlier this week that is “not realistic” to expect the coming summer to be characterised by people flying to other parts of the world on holiday. 

“I don’t think we’re heading for a summer where millions of people from this part of the world can head to the beaches, other than the beaches in their own localities,” the CMO added. 

Asked about Holohan’s reference to people going to beaches within their localities, Varadkar said: 

“I do anticipate this summer that it will be possible for people to holiday within Ireland, to be able to go Kerry, Mayo, Waterford or wherever they want to go, or even Dublin, if they wish. So I think that will be possible this summer.”

In an interview with TheJournal.ie, the Fine Gael leader also discussed the government’s plans to extend the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and the wage subsidy scheme into the summer, as well as his hopes that people will be able to meet up with friends and family come March. 

The lifting of the strict Covid measures will be contingent on the level of the virus heading into summer months, the average case numbers and the progress of the vaccine roll out, he said.

“I think a home holiday in the way people had them last year will be possible this summer. Obviously international travel will be very difficult, much more difficult than it was last summer, unfortunately.

“I love travel, I love going abroad, I love my sun holiday, I love the beach, I love the warm sea, I’d be the first on that plane if I thought it was safe to do so, but unfortunately it’s not.”

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Easing restrictions

When asked what hope there is of an easing of restrictions this spring, Varadkar said the government will be cautious. He confirmed that he told his parliamentary party last week that the country is set to move to Level 4 restrictions (or Level 4 with modifications) after 5 March. 

He was quick to point out that he did not indicate that restaurants would be open for outdoor dining next month, even though limited outdoor dining is allowed under Level 4 according to the government’s own website. As a result some in the restaurant business said the Tánaiste’s reported comments had given false hope. 

That’s not going to happen, he said. “I don’t think so. Not outdoor dining.”

The Tánaiste said however that allowing people to meet outdoors “is something I really want to be possible in March”.

“I’m the Minister for business and employment, my main job is to is to save businesses, get them open and get people back to work. But I also care about people’s mental health.

“So many people haven’t been able to see family and friends – assuming they’re complying with the rules, of course – they haven’t been able to see family and friends in person for a very long time. By March, we’ll be getting into a third month of that.

“So when we reopened after the first wave, one of the first things we did was allow people to meet up with another house outdoors, not indoors initially, but outdoors. And I think maybe in March, that’d be something that I think it’d be nice to be able to do.”

Getting schools and construction reopened is also one of the government’s main priorities for February and March.

“The phased return to school I think has to be the number one priority for reasons I don’t need to explain to your listeners and your readers. And the reopening of the aspects of construction that are now closed.

“So building houses, for example, people want to buy, that’s important, and it’s a largely, outdoor, safe profession.

“They’re the kind of things I think people will see… Can we go to Level 4 or Level 4 modifications in the 5 March? I can’t say that at this stage, that’s not possible to say,” he said, adding that it is all contingent on getting the numbers of cases and hospitalisations low.

“Let’s try to get the cases as low as possible, the lower we get them, then the longer we can stay open. And the more time we buy in terms of giving people vaccines.

“But I also think we need to be realistic, you know, we are in Europe, we are at the epicentre of the pandemic, we do have a land border with Northern Ireland, it might be the case that we get to a certain point where the number of cases plateau.

“It’s interesting and good that people are talking about getting to zero or getting to near zero, we just don’t know how low we possibly can go. Countries that have successfully got to zero didn’t have thousands of cases a day in the first place. We’re seeing across Europe countries that went into lockdown before us, getting to a point below which they find very hard to go lower, but we are going to try and get as low as we can.”

A number of scientist, academics and some Opposition parties are calling for the government to pursue a “zero-Covid” approach, which would involve seeking to completely eliminate the virus. 

Chair of the NPHET Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, Professor Philip Nolan has said that it would be a “false promise” to say that measures could be put in place now to safely lead to a move to Level One or “Zero” on the restrictions framework in a matter of months. Meanwhile, the Taoiseach Micheál Martin said it was not a “sustainable” policy for Ireland.

Draconian measures and strict restrictions

Yesterday in the Dáil, the Taoiseach said the government had had to impose some of the most draconian measures on its citizens in the history of the State. 

The Tánaiste said it is easier to bring in restrictions than it is to unfurl them, but that is something the government aims to do. Right now, he said stricter restrictions are necessary, and there might be more to come. 

“I’m somebody who believes in in personal freedoms and civil liberties. I’ve never particularly liked the fact that we’ve had to impose these restrictions on people. And you remember back in the first wave [...] very little of what we did was mandatory and backed up by the law. And I haven’t liked the fact that we have gotten into the space where we’ve had to do that. But we have to do that.

“Because in the early stage of the pandemic, it was easier to get the country on board, to get everyone to comply. But when this has been going on for the best part of a year now, it becomes much harder. And that’s why we’ve had to underpin a lot of the advice and regulations in law. And I think we’re going to have to do more of that in the period ahead.

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“But I want to make really sure that once we do these things, once these things are not necessarily needed anymore, that we remove them. I’d hate one of the long term consequences of the pandemic to be an ongoing restriction on our freedoms, because it’s not who we are. It’s not not our way of life. And I’m surprised how many people in the Dáil, both from the left and right, have become authoritarian all of a sudden.”

Adding countries

It was announced last week that mandatory hotel quarantine was to be introduced for people travelling to Ireland from Brazil and South Africa due to the higher risk posed by new variants of the virus. Those without a PCR test will be required to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel. 

In terms of countries that are deemed higher risk – that list is set to get longer, said Varadkar. 

“At the moment, it’s Brazil and South Africa. I think you will see more countries added to that. But again, we have to confirm what they’re doing in the UK, we have to confirm what we’re doing at a European level, because we are in the European Union. We are European citizens, we do have the freedom to travel around Europe.”

Varadkar’s expectation is that some form of restrictions are going to be in place for much of the year.

“We will continue to have restrictions in place, advisory and legally enforceable restrictions, at least until we have a critical mass of the adult population vaccinated – 70% or 80% of people.

“And then if the vaccines live up to their promise, we’re then in a position to live with the virus the way we live with other viruses like the flu, for example. But that really does require reaching a high level of herd immunity. And the only safe way to do that is through vaccinations.”

Extension of PUP and wage subsidy

And when restrictions are lifted, what will the fallout be for the economy?

“We will try to avoid austerity. But of course, you know, once this pandemic does end, there will be a gap between what we’re spending and what we’re raising in taxes and that will have to be closed. The best way to close it in my view is through growth.”

Varadkar said he believes the economy will “bounce back very fast”. He said banks have billions of Euros on the books from people who thankfully did not lose their jobs, and that the government will be encouraging them to spend it.

For the moment the Tánaiste confirmed that talks are underway in government about extending the wage subsidy scheme, the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and the CRSS payment for closed businesses beyond the 31 March end date. 

“We’re having discussions now in government about extending them into the second quarter of the year. The April, May, June period,” he said.

Other schemes are also in the works, to help businesses “that may have fallen between the cracks”.

New supports for tourism businesses that were not eligible for the weekly CRSS grant were announced this week, with Varadkar stating that additional supports for another group of businesses that did not qualify for CRSS -  like caterers and wholesalers – will be announced “quite soon”.

“We’re examining kind of targeted things that might help people who were in the gig economy, people who were doing music gigs or weddings,” he said, adding that there will also need to be another package of supports for the aviation sector “because the summer that our airlines thought they were going to have, they will not”. 

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