New restrictions to suppress the spread of Covid-19 in Ireland are likely to be in place for more than two months, the Tánaiste has said.
In a press briefing following the Taoiseach's announcement of renewed Level 5 restrictions with “specific adjustments,” Leo Varadkar said people should prepare for them to last for the first two months of 2021.
The Irish Times reports that Mr Varadkar said restrictions would be reviewed on January 12th, the date until which they are currently set to remain in place.
Ireland will introduce fresh lockdown measures from Christmas Eve, amid fears a new variant of coronavirus identified in England is a factor in spiralling infection rates.
“It will probably be towards the end of February or early March before a critical mass of the population is vaccinated and I think we need to operate on the basis that these restrictions will be in place until then,” Mr Varadkar said.
He added that the country was experiencing “exponential growth” in numbers infected with the virus, which would see case numbers at 1,000 a day before Christmas and “perhaps 2,000 a day before New Year’s Eve” if left to follow their current trajectory.
“We don’t know if the new variant is circulating in Ireland, but we’re operating on the basis that it is,” Mr Varadkar said.
Mr Varadkar said that while the retail sector was currently exempt from closures under Level 5, it could also face further restrictions if case numbers continue to climb.
Christmas Eve closures will include restaurants, gastropubs, hairdressers and beauty salons. Inter-county travel will be prohibited after December 26th, while there are to be no gatherings in households from January 1st.
Briefings from public health officials were described as “very sobering” by Green Party leader Eamon Ryan.
Asked if this would be the last time Level 5 restrictions would be imposed, the Taoiseach said: “I can’t say whether this is the last or not.”
Micheál Martin said the current wave of the virus was different to that seen in October, with quickly rising infection rates among the older population indicating this wave could see much higher rates of hospitalisation and mortality.
He said the Government was acting “quickly and aggressively” to try to suppress the soaring case numbers, working off the assumption that the new and more infectious strain of the virus recently identified in England was already in the country.
“While we do not yet have firm evidence that the new, more virulent, strain of the Covid virus is in our country, the rate of growth over the last week tells me that the safest and most responsible thing to do is to proceed on the assumption that it is already here,” he said.
It is understood the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) warned the Government that case numbers would surge in the coming days, exceeding 900 per day by Tuesday.
The growth in infections is now running at 10 per cent a day, which if it continued unchecked would threaten to overwhelm the health service within a few weeks.
Vaccines are on the way
However, Mr Martin also reminded of “light at the end of this tunnel.”
“As despondent as any of us might feel with the return of restrictions, it is important to remember that the hope is real, there is light at the end of this tunnel,” he said.
“Vaccines are on the way, last night I received confirmation that we will shortly receive delivery of almost 10,000 vaccines against this disease.
“The roll-out of these will commence next week to our most vulnerable and we will safely and swiftly build from there.”
The Cabinet has also been told the first vaccinations in the Republic will take place on either December 30th or 31st.