Government won't fully adopt Nphet's stark advice on easing restrictions over Christmas

Divisions between Government and its medical advisers who have called for gastro-pubs and restaurants to only operate on a takeaway and delivery service basis over Christmas
Government won't fully adopt Nphet's stark advice on easing restrictions over Christmas

Nphet are of the view that a choice should be made between allowing household visits and re-opening hospitality, and said both should not happen at the same time.  Picture: Brian Lawless

Stark advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) will not be fully adopted by the Government as lockdown restrictions are eased from next week.

A gulf has emerged between the Government and its medical advisers who have called for gastro-pubs and restaurants to only operate on a takeaway and delivery service basis over Christmas.

Nphet are of the view that a choice should be made between allowing household visits and re-opening hospitality, and said both should not happen at the same time.

However, it is understood that Cabinet is unlikely to heed this advice when it meets to sign off on new restrictions on Friday afternoon.

Speaking after the Covid-19 Cabinet sub-committee meeting Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath said the Government had listened "very carefully" to Nphet, however, he said they would be taking a range of factors into account.

He cautioned that not everyone would be happy with the Government's plan but said there is "a duty" to take the impact restrictions have on businesses, families and society on board. 

He said the Government will aim to "strike the right balance" with the measures they announce.

"We are social animals, we enjoy interacting, having a chat, meeting people but that is the very environment where the virus thrives, so there is a complex set of factors here that has to be taken into account," Mr McGrath said adding that the final decisions will be hammered out at Cabinet today.

Pointing out that 100,000 had been put out of work when level 5 restrictions came into force, he said: "We are conscious that December is a really important month for so many reasons for the economy, for so many businesses for families and for society, so we have to strike a balance.

"We do need to look at how our hospital systems are coping, and the 130,000 or so health professionals in our system have done a remarkable job.

Our hospital system is in a much better state going into December this year than it was in December last year. 

"That's because of the work of all of our health professionals, but also because of decisions the government has made and the investment we have made. 

"So all of those factors, matter, and we are conscious that December is a really important month for businesses for the economy and people want to meet each other," he said.

It is understood public health officials are “deeply concerned” about several elements proposed in the Government's re-opening plan, particularly allowing restaurants and gastro pubs reopen.

Nphet expressed concerns around the resumption of religious services and also warned of much higher levels of the virus in Northern Ireland.

In a letter to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, Nphet said that should that occur, from December 21, up to six people from three different households could be allowed visit a house. File Picture: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos Dublin
In a letter to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, Nphet said that should that occur, from December 21, up to six people from three different households could be allowed visit a house. File Picture: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos Dublin

However, one senior Government source said: “Nphet see things solely through the prism of public health. We have to look at societal, economic and other considerations. 

It is no surprise Nphet are concerned about pubs and restaurants, we expected that. But they advise and government decides. Opening up is a risk, a calculated risk but one worth taking."

Nphet said if restaurants and other hospitality providers were allowed to reopen for Christmas then visits to people’s homes should be limited to one other household only.

While Nphet is firmly against allowing visits to people's homes along with the reopening of restaurants and pubs, the restrictions around households visits could be relaxed further if businesses serving food are limited to takeaway services for the duration of the Christmas period.

In a letter to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, Nphet said that should that occur, from December 21, up to six people from three different households could be allowed visit a house.

Government sources had expected Nphet to raise alarm over restaurants opening up, but the intention to allow people have a good Christmas remains.

The public health officials advised that only two households should be permitted to gather indoors after the move out of Level 5.

As revealed earlier this week, it has been proposed that such restrictions on gathering in homes would be relaxed further to enable six people from at most three households meet indoors closer to Christmas.

It is understood that Nphet is proposing that the country be moved into “enhanced” Level 3 restrictions from December 2.

Senior Government sources said there were "not surprised” at the conclusions from the Nphet ahead of the publication of the Government’s plan on Friday.

It has been confirmed that Level 5 restrictions will be eased down to Level 3 next week, allowing more than 30,000 people return to work in retail, hairdressers and gyms.

It is expected that pubs serving food and restaurants will be able to open a week later on either December 4 or December 7.

It has also been confirmed that travel restrictions are to be eased for two weeks around Christmas, allowing people to travel anywhere in the country to enable them to spend Christmas with their families.

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