No further easing of restrictions, beyond the phased return of schools from early March, are likely to be announced by Government next week after the State’s public health team warned of a plateau in the fight against Covid-19.
Level 5 restrictions will continue to remain in place until April with strict measures until early May, sources said following a meeting of the Cabinet Covid-19 committee.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) was “very, very cautious in their presentation” to the committee, according to sources, which said the phased reopening of schools was “about the limit of what they can support”.
A mooted re-opening of construction is unlikely to be supported by Nphet while hopes that outdoor sports could resume and that people could meet outdoors have also been dashed. One senior source said it was now “out of the question” that restrictions would be eased to allow people to meet outdoors.
Sources said that the Cabinet sub-committee will recommend that schools begin the phased opening at the start of March but the current Level 5 restrictions will remain unchanged.
The plan is expected to include a phased reopening of schools. This would see junior infants to second class in first phase of reopening, and third to sixth in the second phase a few weeks later. At secondary this would see sixth years returning first, followed by third/fifth years a few weeks later and the rest, possibly in April, according to sources.
Time between phases
Nphet want to see a phased, cautious, slow return to the classroom, with time left between phases so the impact can be assessed, deputy chief medical officer, Dr Ronan Glynn said at a media briefing last night. He urged people not to take the partial re-opening of schools as a signal that mobility or inter-household mingling was once again acceptable.
It is understood that Ministers pushed Nphet on how much longer Level 5 measures might be needed and although a date was not given, Government sources now believe that this level of restrictions will be needed “for the foreseeable future”, into March and beyond.
Government officials will continue to work on a refreshed version of the Living with Covid-19 plan before another meeting next Monday. Sources have cautioned that it will not contain dates for reopening of the economy and society. Pandemic welfare supports will likely be extended until at least the end of the second quarter of the year.
A presentation was also given by the vaccine taskforce which was described as “hopeful”. Ministers were told that in the second quarter there would between 1.2-1.3 million doses given a month.
Nphet last night revised upwards its forecast for downward projection of daily cases. Prof Philip Nolan, chair of the Nphet epidemiological modelling advisory group, forecast 400-500 cases a day by March 1st, and 200-350 by mid-March, assuming no further change in the reproduction number.
Prof Nolan said further progress in being made in reducing infections but the rate has slowed down. This is “almost certainly” due to the B117 variant that was first identified in the UK and now accounts for 90 per cent of Irish cases.
Test positivity has stalled at about 6 per cent for the past 10 days, higher than during the October surge, he said.
“People are trying as hard as they can, they’re succeeding but collectively finding it more difficult,” he said.
Describing the situation as precarious, he urged people to resist the tendency to mix more. Disease levels were still very high and had to be brought down further. A further 47 deaths of Covid-19 patients and 901 cases were reported on Thursday.