Mask wearing to reduce the spread of Covid-19 looks set to soon become voluntary in Ireland – here is everything we know about the potential rule change.
What are the current rules for face masks in Ireland?
Wearing a face mask is currently recommended to help stop the spread of Covid-19, and in some situations, wearing a face covering is the law for those aged nine and over without a “reasonable excuse”.
By law, people must wear a face covering when using public transport, shops and other public indoor settings including cinemas, theatres, hair and nail salons, banks, post offices and airports. The law at present includes exemptions for sit-in restaurants or cafés.
If you do not wear a face covering – or ignore a request to wear one – without a reasonable excuse, you can be fined €80. If you do not pay your fine within 28 days, you will be summonsed to court where you may receive a fine of up to €1,000, up to one months' imprisonment, or both.
What changes to the rules are expected?
Most mask wearing looks set to become voluntary after the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) met on Thursday to review the latest Covid-19 data.
It is understood that Nphet agreed face coverings should only be required in healthcare settings, meaning they will no longer be mandatory in schools and retail settings, or on public transport.
The law requiring face masks to be worn in certain settings is expected to be replaced with a recommendation, leaving it up to the individual.
The rule change would not impact the requirement for masks to be worn during air travel, as these rules are set by the European Union.
When could the rule change come?
Public health laws on face coverings are currently in place until at least February 28th.
However, sources have said current face mask requirements could be scrapped as early as next week.
Nphet's Dr Tony Holohan, the country's chief medical officer, will convey the group's recommendations to the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, who will bring the advice to Cabinet.
It is not expected that a Cabinet meeting will be scheduled for Friday, meaning the change will likely not come into effect until the middle of next week.
What are experts in Ireland saying about the potential change?
Professor of immunology Paul Moynagh has said that “now is as good as it’s going to get” with regard to case numbers and the timing to halt mandatory mask wearing.
“There will be new variants. If we don’t lift mask restrictions now, when will we lift them?” he asked on Newstalk Breakfast.
Masks did have a benefit, he said, but Omicron was very difficult to control and there was now a level of immunity in the population because of vaccination. Some people would continue to wear masks as there was a move towards “personal evaluation of risk”.
However, immunology expert Professor Luke O’Neill called for mandatory mask wearing to remain in place for public transport, saying buses and trains were “the perfect place” for the virus to spread.
Infectious diseases' consultant Dr Cliona Ní Cheallaigh also said she would “suggest very strongly” that people continue to wear masks.
“There's still an awful lot of Covid circulating around, so I think if you don't want to get Covid I would suggest very strongly that you continue to wear your masks,” she told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.
What about global health experts?
The World Health Organisation (WHO)’s technical lead on Covid-19, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, has said masks are “one aspect of control” helping to reduce transmission in conjunction with other measures.
In response to a question on January 22nd about the efficacy of masks in the face of new variants, she said: “They can’t be used alone, so we need to emphasise that because not one solution is enough. Not masks alone, not physical distancing, not hand hygiene – you’ve heard us say that quite a lot.”
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) this month published updated “considerations” for face mask usage in the context of the Omicron variant, saying masks can help reduce Covid-19 spread “by reducing the release of respiratory droplets from asymptomatic/pre-symptomatic individuals or those with mild non-specific symptoms.”
“In areas where the public health objective is to reduce ongoing community transmission of Covid-19, wearing a face mask should be considered as one of a range of possible measures in confined public spaces, such as stores, supermarkets, transportation hubs (eg, ports, airports, train/coach stations) and in public transport,” it said.
What is the wider reaction to the potential change in Ireland?
Concerns over the lifting of mandatory mask wearing have been voiced by both transport workers and schoolteachers in Ireland.
General secretary of the National Bus and Railworkers Union (NBRU) Dermot O’Leary said his members were concerned there could be conflict between passengers over the wearing of masks.
Mr O’Leary told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that it was only three weeks since there had been a return to 100 per cent of capacity on transport, so his members were concerned that it was “rushing” to remove the mandatory rule on masks on public transport.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has called for a “pragmatic and cautious” approach to any changes to school mitigation measures, while the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said a sudden relaxation could disrupt preparations for Junior and Leaving Cert exams.
However, the largest representative body for the retail industry in Ireland, Retail Excellence, said it would welcome the move, although managing director Duncan Graham said he did not expect a change of the law would "signal the end of face-masks as a whole."
Parish priest Fr Tim Hazelwood, of Killeagh in east Cork, meanwhile told Morning Ireland that he was unsure that people were mentally and emotionally ready for the easing of restrictions. Some of his parishioners would continue to stay away from the church out of fear and watch online instead.
What is the latest data on Covid in Ireland?
As the potential rule change is weighed, a further 108 deaths related to Covid-19 were reported in the last week, bringing the total to 6,399 since the start of the pandemic.
Just under 10,000 new cases were logged in Ireland on Thursday, with 5,035 cases confirmed by PCR test while 4,406 positive antigen tests were registered on the HSE’s online portal.
Hospitalisations remain stable, with some 639 patients being treated in hospital for Covid-19 as of Thursday morning, including 58 people in intensive care units.