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Having all schools fully open in April is a top priority, says Tánaiste

Easing of some low-risk outdoor activities is also expected to be announced next week.

Some TDs have called for restrictions to be put on a county-basis dependent on the incidence rate.
Some TDs have called for restrictions to be put on a county-basis dependent on the incidence rate.

TÁNAISTE LEO VARADKAR has told the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting that having all schools fully open in April is a top priority for the government.

It is understood that clusters in schools are being monitored closely by government and no concerns have been flagged as long as case numbers stay below 1,000 to 1,500 per day.

Varadkar said it also a priority for some restrictions to be eased that would see some low-risk outdoor activities to be allowed, stating that it is needed for people and their mental health. 

Varadkar said a number of things will feed into their decision-making process, such as the case numbers, the R number, hospitalisations, ICU numbers and vaccine programme.

Speaking at his own parliamentary party meeting this evening, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said by the end of April, Ireland will be in a different position, as all over-70s and those with serious underlying conditions will have received their first dose of a vaccine. 

He asked members “to stick with it for another few weeks”.

Martin also reiterated what he told the Dáil today, that the situation is “very fragile” but that Level 5 restrictions had worked to date in terms of lowering the numbers from the January highs.

He also said no decisions had been made yet as to what restrictions might be eased, but said the variant is a problem. 

Martin also told his members that he is listening to peoples’ concerns in relation to funeral numbers.

Earlier in the Dáil, he said government would look at the issue, but could give no guarantees that there would be changes.

Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan called for the 5km to be scrapped and for outdoor activities to be allowed.

Senator Timmy Dooley and Minister of State Niall Collins are understood to have called for a full lifting of the travel restrictions, and for outdoor activities to be permitted.

The meeting was also told by some that the 5km limit was “bordering on ridiculous”. 

TD Barry Cowen asked the Taoiseach if he still believes the end of June vaccination target can be met, especially in view of the HSE still recruiting vaccinatiors. 

The Taoiseach said there is an 80% target for the first dose target, adding that the April target is “looking good”.

Easing restrictions 

Fine Gael sources at the meeting said a number of TDs said they were in favour of putting the restrictions on a county-wide or regional basis depending on the incidence rate of the virus, while others called for an end to rolling lockdowns. 

The meeting also heard that legal restrictions should not be conflated with public health advice, citing several examples where there was confusion about what is law and what is guidance, with religious services being one such example.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) has postponed its usual Thursday meeting and will instead meet on Monday, in advance of the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid that evening. 

This meeting is attended by the deputy chief medical officer, the Taoiseach, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Transport Minister Eamon Ryan as well as a select number of ministers and top level senior servants. 

It has been indicated that the NPHET meeting was postponed so as to avoid any leaking of the letter sent to government that contains NPHET’s recommendations, and to avoid a weekend of speculation. 

While the decision on what restrictions will be eased will be largely made at that meeting, a full Cabinet meeting will needed to rubber stamp the decisions on Tuesday. 

It is expected the Taoiseach will then do a public address to the nation, most likely around 6pm that evening. 

The Taoiseach has already flagged well in advance what is being considered next week. It is likely the 5km limit will be eased, to some degree.

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Some in government circles had indicated earlier in the week that it might not change, but that suggestion was quickly slapped down by senior sources.

While no decisions have been made, there is speculation that it could move to 10-20km, county-wide, or be lifted altogether, given recent data that the the majority are moving beyond their 5km anyway.

Reopening the construction sector will also be discussed.

Housing Minister Daragh O’Brien has been calling for the sector to get the green light to reopen since before Christmas.

Easing some restrictions in relation to outdoor activities are also on the cards, such as tennis and golf, with a hope that meeting up with more people outside might also be possible. 

Need for clarity 

Sources in both parties said there was a lot of concerns raised by politicians in relation to the lack of hope being given to people, as well as more clarity being needed around the government’s strategy.

The Fine Gael parliamentary party discussed Israel as being a country showing some positive data, and possibly one country Ireland could follow, in terms of giving vaccinated people more freedoms. 

Concerns were also raised with the Tánaiste about the tourism sector needing more clarity as to how it might operate, if and when it is given the green light to reopen this summer. 

Earlier today, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said he expected some slight easing to be announced next week. 

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