The Government is to ignore public health advice and allow gastro-pubs and restaurants to reopen, as well as relaxing restrictions on household visits.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin will announce new eased restrictions for the Christmas period this evening which will see shops, gyms, and hairdressers reopen from Tuesday. It is expected that family and friends from three or even four households will be allowed to meet up for Christmas.
However, a gulf has emerged between the Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), which has called for gastro-pubs and restaurants to only operate on a takeaway and delivery service basis over Christmas.
Nphet also advised that a choice should be made between relaxing the rules on household visits and allowing the hospitality sector to reopen, as doing both would result in a spike in the virus.
It comes as the number of cases remains stubbornly high, with 335 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 and a further three deaths notified.
The Government’s Covid-19 Cabinet sub-committee met last night, when it was briefed by chief medical officer Tony Holohan and HSE chief Paul Reid.
However, the Government had also commissioned another body of work to look at areas including the impact of restrictions on business and the economy and this fed into discussions around a move from level 5 to level 3.
Public Expenditure minister Michael McGrath said the Government had listened “very carefully” to Nphet, but 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 on board the impact that restrictions have on businesses, families, and society.
He said the Government will aim to “strike the right balance” with the measures they announce.
“We are social animals, Mr McGrath said. "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,”
He added that the final decisions will be hammered out at Cabinet today.
Nphet, which is understood to be “deeply concerned” about several elements proposed in the Government’s reopening plan, is of the view that a choice should be made between allowing household visits and reopening hospitality, and said that neither should happen.
The team also raised concerns around the resumption of religious services and warned of high rates of the virus across the border.
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," the source said. "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.”
The Government leaders believe restaurants and gastro-pubs should be allowed to reopen with enhanced safety measures. But this is expected to be delayed until December 7. While clear advice on the reopening of retail and other businesses will be provided today, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said guidance around travel for Christmas will only be published closer to the time.