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MICHEÁL MARTIN HAS announced that the country will move to Level 5 – with some modifications – amid a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases.

6563 Health Briefings File photo. Dr Holohan and Professor Nolan at last night's briefing. Source: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

The message from public health authorities at last night’s NPHET briefing was clear: “stay at home, stop socialising”

This is what chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan had to say:

“It’s not a time now for going out to restaurants and pubs even though the opportunities are there. We recognise that the situation has changed and is changing very very quickly, and we’re trying to evaluate things such as the potential role of this new variant that we’ve heard so much about in recent days.

“We think that now, it’s very important that people revise any plans that they may have had.

“People may well have listened to us over the course the last couple of weeks, thought ahead, planned ahead. It’s now time to look again at those plans.”

Holohan added if people have been socialising in recent times, that “now is the time you can take the responsible action of staying away” from vulnerable or older people over the festive period. 

After NPHET’s verdict that we’re now in a “third wave”, coalition leaders met yesterday to discuss the growing concerns over the rise in Covid-19 cases. 

The Cabinet sub-committee on coronavirus, made up of the Taoiseach and senior ministers, was also convened.

Our political correspondent Christina Finn has details here on what that sub-committee heard and what it recommends ahead of the Cabinet meeting this morning.

Ministers have been speaking to reporters on their way into the Cabinet briefing, which starts at 9am.

Green Party leader Minister Eamon Ryan said the spread of Covid is “going fast across all age groups”, which is “slightly different to October, November”. 

“We will be introducing new restrictions,” he said. “I think it’s necessary… when you do lose control, it’s very hard to get it back.”

Ryan added there’ll be a series of staggered dates for new restrictions, and they won’t all take effect from the same date.

One thing up for discussion at today’s Cabinet meeting will be the travel ban instigated against people flying in from Britain, after the government there announced details of a new strain of Covid-19 that is said to be 70% more transmissable. 

Ireland’s 48-hour ban on flights expires tonight, so a decision on whether or not that will be extended will be made today. 

Meanwhile, talks between the UK and France on re-opening full trade and transport across the English Channel are ongoing today

Just on that travel ban, the World Health Organization’s Europe chief has said this morning that such measures to contain the spread of the new strain of Covid-19 are “prudent”. 

Hans Kluge said on Twitter: “Limiting travel to contain spread is prudent until we have better info. Supply chains for essential goods & essential travel should remain possible.

“Welcome GB action to share data & intensify investigations.

“Reaffirming our commitment to #solidarity in the face of new #COVID19 challenges yet again.

“No one is safe until everyone is safe.”

Meanwhile, Stormont ministers are to issue guidance advising against non-essential travel between Northern Ireland and both the Republic and Great Britain and after a bid for an outright ban on GB travel was voted down.

People arriving in Northern Ireland will also be advised to self-isolate for 10 days.

A Sinn Féin proposal for a temporary prohibition on travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was defeated during an emergency late night virtual executive meeting, the PA news agency understands.

We’ve more on that here

In some rare good news yesterday, the European Medicines Agency recommended the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for approval, paving the way for its rollout in Ireland.

This morning, the co-founder of BioNTech said it was “highly likely” that its vaccine against the coronavirus works against the mutated strain detected in Britain, but it could also adapt the vaccine if necessary in six weeks.

“Scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant,” Ugur Sahin said.

But if needed, “in principle the beauty of the messenger technology is that we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation – we could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks.”

On his way into Cabinet earlier, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said that public health authorities are “deeply concerned” about the figures in recent weeks.

He said Dr Tony Holohan had recommended a move to Level 5, and this will be considered by Cabinet this morning.

Donnelly added that vaccinations will begin “this side of the new year”. 

Cabinet is ongoing, so if you’re looking for something completely different, the footage of the sun entering the tomb chamber in Newgrange today was just lovely. 

You can find out more details on that here

While we await an update on travel from Britain, Germany has this morning extended a ban on arrivals from Britain until 6 January over the new coronavirus strain.

“The transport ban covers passenger traffic by train, bus, ship and flights directly from these countries,” the health ministry said in a statement. “The order covers the period from December 22, 2020 until January 6, 2021.”

It added that people who have valid residency permits for Germany could return from January 1.

6537-health-briefings Dr Cillian De Gascun Source: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

While we’ve been hearing from British public health officials that the new strain of the virus is more transmissble, Irish officials have said there is not yet any “hard evidence” that it is more infectious. 

Speaking last night, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Dr Cillian De Gascun said however that it is “prudent” to act on the basis that this might be the case until more research is carried out.

De Gascun said the strain is “a cause for concern” but that the evidence is not there yet to say for sure that it is more infectious.

“I don’t think we have seen the evidence for that interpretation at this point in time,” he said.

“Certainly there are significant case numbers in various regions of the UK and it has become the dominant strain over the last four or five weeks, certainly it’s a cause for concern. There are some genetic markers that might explain why it would be more infective, and perhaps might be more efficient at transmitting, but we haven’t seen the hard evidence for that.”

Despite this, De Gascun said that due to the infection rates in the southeast of the UK its “quite important and prudent” to operate on a precautionary basis.

Cabinet is still ongoing but we’re expecting an announcement from the government between 12.30pm and 1pm today.

It is possible this could change, however, if the meeting lasts longer than expected.

We heard from Green leader Eamon Ryan on his way to Cabinet today. 

In other political news, TheJournal.ie‘s Órla Ryan has been speaking to outspoken Green TD Neasa Hourigan.

Hourigan is saying she’s staying in the party – for now at least – but that “lots of people would be relieved” if she left. 

You can read that interview here.

The number of daily Covid-19 cases has risen rapidly in recent days. 

On Monday 14 December, 264 new cases were confirmed.

Yesterday, 727 new cases were announced.

TheJournal.ie understands that new cases today could exceed 900.

It’s also understood that under the proposals to be recommended by Cabinet, gastropubs and restaurants will shut on Christmas Eve at 3pm. 

As we indicated, the government press conference now won’t go ahead at 12.30pm as planned. 

Political correspondents at Leinster House are reporting that Cabinet is running late, so it’ll be 1pm at the earliest before we hear that announcement. 

Our political correspondent Christina Finn is reporting that differing views are still being aired at Cabinet. 

I hope she’s wrapped up warm standing outside Government Buildings there.

Here’s what the Taoiseach is expected to announce later this afternoon following Cabinet decisions, according to Christina at Government Buildings:

  • People can travel beyond their county until midnight on 26 December
  • They can stay where they are after that point and travel back to their own home at a later date
  • No inter-county travel after that, until restrictions are reviewed in several weeks’ time 
  • From 27 December, household visits down to just one other household (from the current two) 
  • Restaurants and gastro pubs to close 3pm Christmas Eve
  • Hairdressers and barbers will also have to close on Christmas Eve
  • The travel restrictions between Britain and Ireland will stay in place until New Year’s Eve. 

After addressing the nation at around 1pm today, Taoiseach Micheál Martin will join Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister Eamon Ryan for a press conference in government buildings. 

It’ll be one (possibly the last?) of many live addresses to the nation from serving Taoisigh about Covid-19 in 2020. 

Ireland is now among 40 countries which have banned travel from Britain, over the new strain of Covid-19 being reported there. 

It’s expected that the travel ban will remain in place here until 31 December. 

This would appear to be official now.

Dublin Airport is saying that affected passengers should contact their airline regarding their specific flight.

Adrian Cummins, from the Restaurants Association of Irleand, has said it’s a “dark day” for the Irish restaurant and hospitality industry.

“Government must step up to the plate with a meaningful aid package,” he said. 

The publicans are also calling for government support to help those who’ll now be closed heading into the new year.

Vintners Federation of Ireland CEO Padraig Cribben says: “Our members who were allowed reopen for under three weeks must now reapply for the CRSS but at this stage, with little prospect of a full reopening in the short-term, we are calling for the CRSS to be increased for all pubs to 30% of 2019 turnover. Government must understand its decisions are decimating our trade so the supports on offer have to recognise that fact.

“We need clear communications from Government about how our members will be allowed resume trading. The good news is vaccines will end the pandemic but how and when will that happen?”

We’re expecting Micheál Martin’s address to the nation in the next few minutes.

Here’s the Taoiseach now. 

“If [the virus] is left to spread unchecked, it will reach the most vulnerable,” he says. “And they will pay a heavy price.”

He says it was important for people’s mental health and wellbeing that there was some respite from restrictions. 

“Unfortunately, in the last week we have seen extraordinary growth in the spread of the virus,” Martin says, adding there’s a daily growth rate of around 10%.

“It’s simply not sustainable,” he says, adding that the “safest and most responsible thing to do” is to act as if the new strain of Covid-19 being seen in the UK is already here. 

Before outlining restrictions, Martin says a lot of people will be receiving this news “with a heavy heart”. 

“While it may not feel like, what we have done to date, and what we are doing now, is saving lives,” he says. 

He says many people are alive today who otherwise would not have been without us adhering to restrictions. 

“From Christmas Eve until 12 January 2021, we’ve agreed to return to Level 5 with some specific adjustments,” he says.

Non-essential retail will remain open, but have been asked to avoid January sales.

Schools and childcare services will remain open. 

Gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools may remain open for individual training. 

Restaurants and gastropubs will close from 3pm on Christmas Eve. 

Screenshot 2020-12-22 at 13.05.41

Martin says visits will be allowed from up to two households up to and including the 26th of December. 

This will be restricted to just one household up to and including 31st December. No household visits will be permitted after that. 

Christmas religious services may take place, but religious services will return online after 25 December. 

“I know these restrictions will pose huge challenges for some sectors of the economy,” he says. “But I want to reassure them that extra financial supports will be provided.”

Martin says there is “light at the end of the tunnel” in the form of vaccines on the way. 

10,000 will shortly be delivered of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. 

The Taoiseach says an “unprecedented national effort” is under way to vaccinate millions of people, but it will take time.

In the meantime, we have to be “vigilant”, he says.

To all the people who’ve followed the health advice and did what was asked, he says “thank you”. 

“This year, the way to show our love and respect for others is to act responsibly to comply with the guidelines and to limit the spread of the virus,” he says. 

“Together we look forward to brighter days. I want to wish everyone a peaceful Christmas and a happier, hopeful new year,” Martin adds.

The Irish Hotels Federation has issued a statement to say the implications of these new restrictions “are nothing short of devastating for our sector”. 

It said its sector will be in effective lock-down from 27 December.

Its chief executive Tim Fenn has said: “Government supports to date have fallen short and not gone far enough in recognising the full extent of the economic impact on our sector.

“Traditionally, the Christmas trading period is absolutely vital for sustaining hotels during the first few months of the following year. Now, that revenue too is gone with today’s announcement.”

Cork publican Michael O’Donovan has been speaking to RTÉ’s News At One.

He says: “We are going to have a huge financial loss on goods we cannot return… A lot of my colleagues won’t survive this.”

Duncan Graham of Retail Excellence Ireland welcomed the news that non-essential retail was to be allowed to stay open under the Level 5 restrictions.

Responding to the Taoiseach’s comments about winter sales he told RTÉ’s News at One it wasn’t in anybody’s interest to see large crowds come into stores in late December or early January, and called on customers to continue to use options to shop online or utilise click & collect.

More statements in from the publicans, this time from the Licenced Vintners Association, which represents Dublin pubs.

Its CEO Donall O’Keeffe is critical of the government in his statement.

He’s said: “They need to take into account the ongoing uncertainty this is causing, the enormous stress this is putting people working in the industry under and the damage these repeated closures is doing to these businesses.

“They also need to provide better supports to those working in the hospitality sector, if they still want to have a viable hospitality sector in this country when the pandemic ends. Staff are already seeking out new career paths.”

file-photo-it-is-reported-that-health-minister-stephen-donnelly-received-level-5-restrictions-in-a-letter-from-nphet-last-night-end Source: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is speaking on RTÉ’s News at One.

He says NPHET’s letter on Thursday recommended a move to Level 3 after Christmas. But just yesterday – Monday – the situation had deteriorated so rapidly that NPHET recommended a move to Level 5.

Donnelly says today’s new case figure will above 900 cases. 

“What we’re seeing is a doubling very quickly,” he says. “Cases have been growing faster even that NPHET’s worse case predictions.

“Inevitably, some of it is due to socialisation. They’re going up so quickly that the question is being asked: is this being driven by the new strain from the UK?”.

Donnelly says that anyone can come back to their county when “their trip is finished”. So they can remain somewhere beyond 26 December, when the ban on inter-county travel comes in. 

“The message is unambigious,” he says. “In so far as people can, they should reduce their contacts.”

He says we’ll know “in a few days” if the new UK strain of Covid-19 is in Ireland, but “we are working on the assumption that it is”. 

The Health Minister says the numbers rose very quickly, and he hopes the numbers fall at a similar rate. 

“This has moved in both directions so quickly,” he says. “We’re putting a very strong ask out for the Irish people.”

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly says the first vaccine dose will be administered in Ireland on 30 December.

The next shipment of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine will arrive in the first week of January. He says tens of thousands doses will arrive weekly. 

Donnelly says that there are around 30,000 residents in nursing homes.

He says it’s hoped that “some time in February”, that all those in nursing homes are protected and have received their two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

A press conference is also under way at government buildings now. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said that businesses on the CRSS will receive a double week over the next two weeks. Hotels will also be eligible for the payment, as they’re effectively shut.

He also says the employment wage subsidy scheme will continue into the future.

He says it’ll late February or early March before a “critical mass” of people have been vaccinated. He says restrictions could remain in place until that time. 

He says it’s likely the restrictions will be in place for the first two months of 2021.

Varadkar says it’s a “recipe for disaster” for younger people who’ve been out socialising to mix with older relatives this Christmas.

He says people over the age of 70 should consider “shielding” in the coming weeks.

Minister Eamon Ryan says the figures and projections are “sobering”. 

“I think we’re going to have a collective new years’ resolution to make it a safe January,” he says. “It’s going to be difficult.”

The government has published details of the new restrictions on its website.

gov ie

As an aside, the tone from the three men on the podium – Martin, Varadkar and Ryan – is very sombre.

The Taoiseach says the “figures are quite dramatically different” than they were several weeks ago. 

Responding to a question from the TheJournal.ie‘s Christina Finn, he says a lot of people believe it’s “inconceivable” that the new UK strain isn’t in Ireland. He adds that people socialising has also contributed to the rise.

He adds the figures “speak for themselves in terms of growth”. 

Some more details from the Level 5 announcement on the government’s website

Public transport will operate at 25% capacity for the period of the new restrictions. 

People are also being told to work from home unless essential for work, such as essential health and social care or another essential service which cannot be done from home. 

Taoiseach says that the Level 5 restrictions in October and November “worked” and that “people deserved a break” from them. 

“The six weeks was quite severe on people,” he says. “And it did get the numbers significantly down.”

However, case numbers have risen significantly in recent weeks, and the restrictions being implemented now represent a move back to Level 5 – albeit with some modifications. 

Varadkar says that the situation has deteriorated rapidly in just the space of a few days. 

As Stephen Donnelly mentioned earlier, NPHET’s advice to government on Thursday had changed significantly by yesterday given the spike in cases.

Varadkar says: “If we’d have a cabinet meeting at the weekend we would have accepted NPHET’s advice [to close hospitality on 28 December]… and we would have been meeting today and we would have been changing that.”

The Taoiseach says that he can’t say whether this will be the last Level 5 lockdown.

“We’ve changed the nature of lockdowns in terms of what is allowed,” he says. 

The 5km rule which applied during other lockdowns does NOT apply for this one. 

By the current trajectory of cases, we could have 2,000 cases a day by New Year’s Day. 

Martin is asked if the advice for older people to shield means that they shouldn’t have Christmas dinner with loved ones. 

“We are saying to people generally to reduce your contacts, take no risks and stay at home over the Christmas,” he says. “And observe all the guidelines because that actually is essential.”

The Department of Social Protection has provided details of the arrangements for the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) given so many will now lose their jobs now before Christmas. 

It said: “In essence, anybody who applies for PUP online via www.MyWelfare.ie anytime up to and including Christmas Eve will receive that payment within a week of their application.

  • A person who makes a new application for PUP in the period from the 18th December up to and including close of business today the 22nd will receive their payment on the 24th of December.
  • A person who makes a new application for PUP by close of business on Wednesday 23rd December will receive payment on Wednesday 30th December.
  • A person who makes a new application for PUP by close of business on Thursday 24th December will receive a payment on Thursday 31st December.
  • A person who makes a new application for PUP on any date from the 25th to close of business on 31st of December will be paid on the normal PUP payment date of Tuesday the 5th of January.

And that’s that press conference wrapped up. 

We’ve become used to grim pronouncements from the government, and this one just a few days before Christmas sums up the last 10 months.

We’ll have all the updates, news and analysis on TheJournal.ie in the coming hours and days (and maybe the odd Christmas quiz to lighten things a bit). 

Thanks for being with us today.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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