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'There is a risk we could go backwards': Taoiseach appears on Late Late show to discuss Covid-19 roadmap

Varadkar announced that restrictions would be lifted on a phased basis from 5 May in a televised address this evening.

Image: RTÉ

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said that Ireland’s Covid-19 restrictions are being lifted slower than in other countries because the government does not want to have to re-impose them at a later date.

Speaking on The Late Late Show tonight, Varadkar warned that there was “always a risk” that the country could regress in its fight against the virus.

But he also suggested that the phases in a roadmap for lifting restrictions – announced in an address to the nation this evening – could be brought forward if progress was being made faster than expected.

“I’ve seen Hokkaido in Japan and Singapore having to go backwards, which is why we’re probably going a bit slower than other countries, because we don’t want to have to go backwards,” he said.

“But… if for example we found out that the virus was dissipating and weakening much quicker than we intended, there are some things that are now in phase five or four that might be brought forward.”

Speaking at Government Buildings earlier, Varadkar announced that restrictions would be lifted on a phased basis between 5 May and the end of the summer.

The measures will see businesses, retailers, childcare, offices preschools, restaurants, cafes, bars, cinemas and gyms all allowed to reopen on a phased basis at different three-week intervals.

Guidelines on the re-commencement of sports and the possibility of social gatherings were also outlined in a document published by the government this evening.

However, the current 2km distance limit on exercise will be expanded to 5km from Tuesday, while it will be possible for people to drive 5km from their place of residence.

Over 70s will also be allowed to leave their homes to exercise and drive up to 5km away, also from Tuesday. 

Awkward interview

The Taoiseach did not take questions from the media following his address, instead waiting to appear on the Late Late Show to face questions about the plan and to explain it in more detail himself (though Health Minister Simon Harris outlined the phases and took questions from reporters after Varadkar’s announcement).

In an at times awkward interview in which he occasionally had to consult his notes, Varadkar outlined how the new measures and phases would affect the everyday lives of Irish people.

His first point of clarity came when it emerged that over 70s, who can leave their homes to exercise from Tuesday, are still being asked to stay away from shops.

“We’re saying that it’s okay to go for a walk or drive, or maybe even a cycle with whoever is in your household or on your own, but not to engage in contact with anyone else because there’s still a high risk of the infection being passed,” the Taoiseach said.

“People over 70 – even fit healthy people over 70 – are more at risk.”

He also explained that the government was working on guidance about the wearing of face coverings, use of which will soon be advised in certain circumstances.

“The scientific community is divided on it… face coverings will be advised, not all the time, but in certain scenarios,” he said.

“For example, indoors in a shop, on public transport, in a crowded place or where social distancing may not be practical.”

‘New ways of doing things’

Later, Varadkar was asked about what a return to schools and colleges in September – also announced in his speech this evening – might look like.

He explained government was currently monitoring developments in countries where schools are beginning to reopen, specifically naming Denmark, where pupils are distanced in classrooms.

“I know the colleges have already looked at how many people you can fit into a lecture theatre, and it’s a much smaller number than it used to be the case,” he said.

“So, we may need to find some new ways of doing things.”

He pointed to the possibility of continued home schooling and learning from home, saying there may have to be electronic lectures and teleconferences for students in the new term.

And he said that Leaving Cert students would get some class time before the exam starts on 29 July, with work underway to allow this to be done if social distancing measures can be put in place.

But he said the government was still exploring alternatives to the exams like predictive marking.

“That’s not perfect either, but we’ve to be guided by the public health advice at the end of the day, whatever happens.”

But the Taoiseach also said that it was possible that as scientific advice developed, it was possible that two-metre distancing guidelines might become one metre, which could permit a gradual shift towards normality.

Pandemic welfare payment

During the interview, Varadkar outlined each of the five phases in the government plan and what it would entail between now and August.

He said that when restaurants and cafes open in the third phase in July, they will have to do so with social distancing measures in place.

And he explained that hairdressers will have to open later than other retail outlets because the business they are involved in requires close contact between people.

The Taoiseach was also questioned about whether the weekly €350 Covid-19 welfare payment would be extended beyond its initial 12-week lifetime, given that so many were likely to be out of work as the economy returns to normality in phases.

“One thing of note is that neither the wage subsidy scheme nor the Covid payment can last forever,” he said.

“But it wouldn’t be right to unwind it before those sectors can actually reopen… my anticipation is that it’ll have to be extended.

“But as sectors reopen then perhaps we can unwind it when people have the opportunity at least to go back to work.”

No regrets

Much of the remainder of the interview passed without note.

At one point, the Taoiseach claimed that there would be an All Ireland Final this year, despite contact sports seemingly being unable to return before the start of the fourth phase on 20 July.

There were also questions about whether government formation talks with the Green Party, whose deputy leader Catherine Martin was involved in a war of words with Tánaiste Simon Coveney, were progressing.

“We’re very keen to meet that 7% target [on reducing carbon emissions every year],” Varadkar said.

“We really want to sit down with them and work out how that can be done.”

He said it was important to have the Green Party to bring those in rural Ireland and the business community on board with meeting climate targets, saying a left wing government would instead fight with business and employers.

In the closing stages, Varadkar was also asked whether he had any regrets about how the government had handled the pandemic.

“There’s nothing you ever do in politics or life that’s 100% perfect and this is the first time in a century that any government anywhere in the world have had to deal with a pandemic,” he said.

“One of the things I’m sure we would definitely have done, had we known, would have been stockpiling. We would have stockpiled ventilators and stockpiled PPE.”

He also suggested the government would be more ambitious about its flu vaccine programme in future, adding that this may be key to fighting a second wave of Covid-19 if this happened during the winter months.

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