“Everything is not being taken off the table” in terms of reopening the economy in the coming weeks, according to the Health Minister.
Stephen Donnelly was speaking after it emerged that Level Five restrictions are likely to remain in place until May, with very few restrictions to be eased next month.
NPHET offered senior ministers ‘incredibly cautious’ advice on reopening at last night’s meeting of the Cabinet COVID-19 Sub-Committee.
While Leaving Cert students and Junior and Senior infants are likely to return to school at the start of March there are now concerns other classes may not return until after the Easter Holidays.
On Newstalk Breakfast this morning, Minister Donnelly said his latest letter from Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn notes that it is “too early to advise on how and when other restrictions should be eased given current uncertainties.”
“Everything is not being taken off the table but I think it is important to look at what has happened when we have come out of more severe restrictions in the past,” he said.
“What tends to happen is people, very reasonably say, ‘can we open construction or essential construction’ – because in fairness the industry has done really well.
“Other people say, ‘can we play golf because that is safe.’ Other people say, ‘well, can we get sport going for children because that is important’ - and God knows it is really important.
“Each of them on their own probably wouldn’t make much of a difference at all. The concern is that when you start doing lots of reasonable things together you begin to have an impact.”
He noted that the “two big uncertainties” facing the country are “this horrible UK variant” and the supply of vaccines arriving in Ireland.
“The big wildcard we are dealing with, what is different this time, is this variant,” he said.
“As Dr Glynn said last night, nearly all of the new cases now are the UK variant - it is around 90%.
“We know that the UK variant is much more contagious and unfortunately, what we are also finding out now, based on research from the UK, which is relatively new information, is that it looks like the UK variant is also more severe both in terms of hospitalisation and fatality.
Minster Donnelly said “nobody knows” whether staycations will be possible this summer – but insisted “it certainly has to be on the cards.”
"The simple answer is nobody knows. NPHET doesn't know. As per the line I read out, it is too early to advise on how and when for the two reasons - becasue of the variatns and becasue of the vaccines."
Test and trace
Earlier this week, the Executive Director of the World Health Organisation's Health Emergencies Programme Dr Mike Ryan warned that Ireland must not return to lockdown after Level Five is lifted.
He noted that the national response must be more “flexible and agile” so we can focus on restricting the movements of sick people rather than society as a whole.
Dr Ryan said that by focusing on clusters, cases and contacts as they appear the country could prioritise getting key aspects of society back up and running while vaccines are being rolled out.
“That is certainly something we have to take under consideration,” said Minister Donnelly.
The game is changing now or the calculus is changing because of the vaccinations.
“When you vaccinated the most vulnerable, which obviously is what we are doing, you quite quickly reduce the risk profile for the country.
“In three weeks’ time, we will have the over-85s first does, we will have frontline healthcare workers and we will be moving through the over-70s and people with underlying conditions.
“So, long before you reach this holy land of herd immunity you do significantly reduce the risk so I think what the WHO is saying and the change in the risk profile means we can start thinking about the measures and the lockdowns differently.”
Stick with it
He appealed to people around the country to stick with it after what has been an “horrific year.”
“It is really tough but we have got to stick with this,” he said.
“We have made huge progress and the vaccines are being rolled out as quickly as they are coming into the country.”
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