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‘Nothing set in stone’: Amid backlash over messaging, Martin says easing of measures will be constantly reviewed

In an interview with TheJournal.ie today, Martin said the rollout of the vaccination programme may give the government “better choices”.
Feb 19th 2021, 4:54 PM 93,954 146

TAOISEACH MICHÉAL MARTIN has said the impact of the phased re-opening of schools on levels of Covid-19 transmission will be closely monitored and will inform any decisions that are made in mid-March on potential changes to lockdown measures.

The Cabinet subcommittee on Covid-19 heard last night that the country will not be moving from Level 5 to Level 4 restrictions for some time. The phased re-opening of schools is expected over March and early April.

It’s expected that junior infants, senior infants, first and second class will return on 1 March. All primary school children will return to school from 15 March, when third, fourth, fifth and sixth class pupils return.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie today, Martin said he can understand people’s disappointment as they face into several additional weeks of lockdown.

“Everybody wants to try and get beyond the current level of restrictions. I understand that fully,” he said.

“I mean, people are very down, since January they’ve been in very restrictive environments – the five kilometre rule in particular is a significant one. We’ve closed retail, we’ve closed hospitality, personal services, so that that is understandable, but it’s the public health advice we’re receiving.”

The Irish Daily Mirror reported today that Martin said a severe lockdown would continue until the end of April.

When asked about this specifically, the Taoiseach denied he said ‘the end of April’, though video from the Mirror shows he did tell the paper’s reporter that significant restrictions would be in place “to the end of April”. 

Martin told TheJournal.ie that the government will keep the situation under constant review, stating”nothing is set in stone”. 

He said severe restrictions would remain “into April”, stating that there will be a review after Easter. 

A government spokesperson said after the interview that although “severe restrictions” would stay in place after that it is the government’s view that this does not necessarily mean Level 5 and that severe restrictions could include Level 3.

The Taoiseach said: “There was no big news in that [discussion of dates of when restrictions will last] from my sense as I believe it has been well trailed that we are looking a prolonged suppression of the virus, and obviously we are looking ahead, we are coming to the end of this phase. We’ve been saying this consistently.”

 

He said restrictions will be reviewed on a regular basis, in particular as the vaccinations are rolled out.

The Taoiseach said the fact that the British variant now accounts for 90% of cases “is now changing the ballpark” and the impact of re-opening schools will give officials an indication of how to proceed.

“They want to monitor each stage of the re-opening, so they would monitor the impact for example of the limited opening of schools and then they’ll come back to us with further advice after that to say ‘that went okay or didn’t go okay’ and that would determine future measures,” he said.

Asked what announcements the public could expect next week he said:

NPHET are advising Monday, government will decide on Tuesday in relation to the restrictions, but they will be reviewed on a regular basis and in particular, depending on the impact of the first phase of the reopening, which is the schools at the beginning of March [it will be the] middle of March before the reviews.

“It will be kept under constant review, particularly as the vaccination programme rolls out and perhaps gives us better choices. So nothing is set in stone.”

The Taoiseach rejected a suggestion that the public’s frustration relates to a problem with the way the government has been communicating its messages around restrictions.

“No, I just think it’s the fact that people are facing into a significant period of restrictions,” he said.

“It’s understandably causing a lot of upset and worry and concern,” he said.

He denied that the he was losing the room, stating “we need to keep with this”, stating that “by and large” people are adhering to the regulations.

“It is the sensible thing to do, now that we know vaccinations are coming,” he said, stating that April, May and June will see greater numbers of people vaccinated. 

Speaking to reporters this evening, the Taoiseach reiterated that while severe restrictions would remain in place, that did not mean there would be no easing at all before the end of April.

“There’s a whole range of restrictions, it doesn’t mean that we’re not going to lift anything between now and then.”

“It’s open to review, is what I’m saying.”

While the Taoiseach was reluctant to speculate on what will open when, he did confirm that it is the intention of government to get creches and the ECCE childcare scheme reopened in early March, though similar to schools, it could be done on a phased basis.  

When asked if there was any glimpse of hope he could give people heading into the weekend, he said the vaccination programme is the “chink of light”.

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The programme for vaccinations will be “ramping up” from April onwards, where he said there is going to he much higher levels achieved.

That will give the government greater room for “manouevre”, in terms of looking at things like reopening sports, household visits and staycations.  

“We are very conscious of mental health,” he said, stating that those areas referenced will also be kept under constant review, adding that he will engage with NPHET on reopening aspects of life that will help people cope. 

“We are not out of this current wave yet,” he said, stating that between now and the end of this month we could be around 600 cases per day. 

“That is still high,” he said. The first phase is reopening the schools and reviewing it after two weeks. 

“I do believe the vaccine will change the landscape in time… if we get the vaccine in that we are scheduled to get in, I think by June and July we will be in a very strong position,” said the Taoiseach.

Speaking about the NIAC report about reviewing when cohorts or groups are vaccinated, the Taoiseach said he received the report earlier today, confirmed that it is currently getting reviewed by the health minister and the chief medical officer.

He said the government were keen to see if those with underlying conditions, that were further down the list, could be moved up.

“I think that is fair and reasonable,” he said.

The vaccine reduces the severity of illness and can prevent death for those that are more vulnerable, he said, stating that they want to get the vaccine to those people “as quicly as we possibly can”.

The news of no significant easing in the near future comes after public health officials said last night that while Covid-19 numbers are still going in the right direction, progress has now slowed down.

Professor Philip Nolan, chair of the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, said that this is likely due to the increased prevalence of the UK B117 variant, which he said is now 90% of all Covid-19 cases in Ireland.

“We are maintaining suppression, but it’s precarious,” said Nolan, who estimated the reproduction number to be between 0.65 and 0.85.

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Christina Finn and Michelle Hennessy

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