Varadkar: Ireland on track to move into Phase Two; Schools to reopen for new academic year

Leo Varadkar outside Government Buildings, as he briefed media on topics including Brexit and the response to Covid-19 following today’s Cabinet meeting. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that Ireland is on track to move into Phase Two of the plan to reopen the country.

Following on from today's cabinet meeting, Mr Varadkar said that the Government will take another look at the restrictions next week.

Mr Varadkar also said that the Education Minister has said the intention is to open schools at the start of the next school year which begins in August.

The Taoiseach said reopening schools will not be a “no-risk” scenario but it should be “low risk” in terms of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“It is the intention of Government to reopen our primary and secondary schools at the end of August at the normal time when the academic year begins.”

Mr Varadkar said they will be looking at research from around the world about the effect it has on the spread of coronavirus.

We know that it is not a no-risk scenario but is a low-risk scenario to open schools and we are learning very much from other countries who have reopened schools partially already.

Mr Varadkar said while schools will return in August, it does not mean every student will be able to attend school for the full day.

“Provided the virus does not make a comeback between now and then, primary and secondary schools will reopen at the end of August.

“It may not be possible for every student to return for the full day, every day, but that is the point we are trying to get to, so it may be necessary to phase in the reopening of schools, but our objective is to open them as fully and as soon as possible provided the virus does not make a comeback.”

He added: “We are also learning from countries that have had to reimpose restrictions. There have been outbreaks in schools in France and several schools in South Korea had to close due to outbreaks.

“It might mean that not every student is able to return to school but we will try to ensure it is as normal as possible.”

The cabinet also heard proposals for a summer programme of education for children with special needs.

Guidelines have been issued for childcare providers to facilitate their re-opening on June 29.

Play pods form a central part of the advice to service providers intending to reopen.

Children's Minister Katherine Zappone said up to 12 children will be allowed into play pods under Government plans to reopen childcare facilities.

She said young children “cannot do social distancing” and play pods will allow children to play in a “natural and spontaneous” way.

Ms Zappone says it is not clear yet how many will be able to open in the summer.

"It is not possible to say how many childcare services will reopen in July and August," said Ms Zappone.

"Many of them are usually closed during those summer months but childcare providers asked that I would publish the public health guidance four weeks in advance of opening so that they could get ready."

While initially the services were only due to open for children of essential workers, this has now been widened to include other categories.

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe confirmed that a change will be made to the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) to accommodate the salaries of those who have returned to work after a period of maternity or adoptive leave and who may not have been on the payroll of their employer on 29 February, or been paid in either January or February 2020; requirements for qualification for the scheme.

"I am satisfied that this change addresses the anomaly and ensures appropriate operation of the TWSS in recognition of the unique circumstances applying to those returning to work after a period of maternity or adoptive leave," said Mr Donohoe.

Mr Donohoe said the change will be legislated for later in the year but it will now be administered and backdated to March 26 when the scheme was introduced.

“The Government is making this important change because we want to ensure that citizens are not denied access to the scheme because of their personal circumstances.”

Mr Donohoe said technical details of the scheme will be published on the Revenue Commissioner’s website on Friday evening.

Speaking at the post cabinet briefing this afternoon, Mr Varadkar also addressed the issue of Brexit saying very little progress has been made on talks.

He said the Government has stepped up planning in the event no Brexit trade deal is agreed.

“As we all know, Brexit has not gone away and talks are intensifying at a European level with a view to an EU/UK seminar being held next month," said Mr Varadkar.

“Very little progress, in reality, has been made on those talks but that is often the way talks go. Sometimes you have to have a crisis or a breakdown before you come to an agreement or a solution.

“We have agreed to step up no-deal planning – that is no trade deal planning – in case we arrive at a position at the end of the year.”

Additional reporting by Press Association