The Government has announced strict new limits on the hospitality sector and home visits as it moved to push down Covid infection rates after officials warned the new Omicron variant was likely to add to pressure on the health service.
"The risks associated with proceeding into the Christmas period without some restrictions... is just too high," Taoiseach Micheál Martin said in a televised address.
Mr Martin confirmed that all nightclubs will close between December 7th and January 9th, and restrictions in place during the summer will return for bars and restaurants.
This includes returning to table service only in hospitality, a maximum of six people allowed per table, no multiple table bookings and no mingling between tables.
Indoor capacity will be limited to 50 per cent for all cultural, entertainment and sporting events.
The Digital Covid Certificate will now be required for gyms and hotels.
Other measures include limiting private gatherings to three households.
Mr Martin said that the experience to date shows that if the Omicron variant is as transmissible as feared, it will be “impossible” to stop it coming into Ireland at a more serious level.
“The challenge we face is that while we have stabilised the surge of cases in the country the daily case numbers are still very high,” he said.
The chief medical officer and public health officials have been “exceptionally clear in their advice to Government,” he said, adding that the risk of proceeding without further restrictions is “just too high”.
“The protection of public health is the Government's primary responsibility and we will do whatever is needed to discharge that duty”. He added: “We will do whatever we need to do to safely steer our society and economy through this.”
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) had met on Thursday to consider advice for the Government on the latest pandemic situation, at a time when Covid-19 case numbers have stabilised at a high level and further information on the Omicron variant is being awaited.
In a letter to the Government, Nphet said that the new variant could drive up cases during increased social activity over the Christmas period.
They said that higher levels of socialising combined with the impact of Omicron could pose a “very real but as yet unquantifiable risk” to the management of Covid over the coming weeks.
Health officials warned Ministers that this presents “serious challenges” in the weeks ahead, adding that it is “impossible” to quantify the level of risk and its impact.
The additional €25m will support those impacted including:
The Pandemic Unemployment Payment will also reopen for those who will need it as a result of today's decision
— Catherine Martin TD (@cathmartingreen) December 3, 2021
Following the Taoiseach's address, Minister for Culture Catherine Martin, who helped oversee the reopening of nightclubs, said an extra €25 million will be made available to support the live entertainment industry.
She also confirmed that the Pandemic Unemployment Payment will reopen for those who need it.
Angela Dorgan, chair of the National Campaign for the Arts lobby group, said the fresh restrictions were "utterly devastating".
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was highly critical on Friday evening of the approach taken by the Government.
“We said to them at months ago that it was a mistake to stop contact tracing in schools. We said to them that we needed widespread access to antigen testing.”
“We and others said that the issue of ventilation in schools and beyond was essential,” she told RTÉ News.
She said she supported any measures to keep people safe, but called for a “dramatic and fundamental change” in the Government's handling of the pandemic.
A further 5,419 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the Republic on Friday. Some 528 patients were in hospital with the disease on Friday morning, including 110 in intensive care units.