'Truly enormous damage' could be done if we let our guard down, Taoiseach warns

'Truly enormous damage' could be done if we let our guard down, Taoiseach warns

Speaking at this afternoon's briefing, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the country had responded to the challenges of previous phases of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that we may now be entering "the most challenging of all." File Picture: Julien Behal

The Taoiseach says Ireland is “under siege” and facing “a tsunami of infection” as he announced a full lockdown.

In the last 24 hours over 6,800 swabs have tested positive, with a positivity ratio of around 25%.

Under the new restrictions, the country's schools will remain closed from Monday but Leaving Certificate students will be allowed to return to school for three days each week.

As part of this plan, teachers could be asked to attend school five days a week while pupils would be divided into groups and would be asked to attend on certain days.

Department of Education officials are this afternoon consulting with teaching unions on facilitating students.

The Taoiseach says that “while all of the scientific and public health evidence shows that schools and childcare services remain safe environments”, the restrictions are in order to reduce mobility, as over one million people are involved in the education sector.

He added the Government will endeavour to ensure the Leaving Cert will go ahead as normal examinations, and “will do everything we can to make that happen”.

The resumption of the ECCE programme will also be delayed until February 1.

Crèches and other childcare facilities will be permitted to remain open, but will only be available to vulnerable children, and the children of those listed as essential workers.

Construction All construction sites, apart from those deemed to be critical infrastructure such as schools and some social housing projects, have been instructed to close from 6pm on Friday.

Building sites will remain shut until the end of the month when restrictions will be reviewed.

Travel In terms of travel, Transport Minister Eamon Ryan confirmed that the current ban on travel from Britain and South Africa, where new Covid-19 variants have been reported, will be extended until midnight on Friday.

Thereafter, a negative Covid-19 test result from within the previous three days will be required for travellers to enter the country.

All the restrictions announced today will remain in place until the end of the month, at which point they will be reviewed.

'We must dig deep within ourselves and face the coming months with steely determination'

Speaking at this afternoon's briefing, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the country had responded to the challenges of previous phases of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that we may now be entering "the most challenging of all." File Picture: Julien Behal
Speaking at this afternoon's briefing, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the country had responded to the challenges of previous phases of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that we may now be entering "the most challenging of all." File Picture: Julien Behal

Micheál Martin says the restrictions are needed as the country currently has more Covid patients in our hospitals than ever before.

“That is why we are doing this. And that is why we must dig deep within ourselves and face the coming months with steely determination and resolve. We simply have to suppress this surge and flatten the curve.

"Once again, the personal decisions that each and every one of us makes over the coming month will directly affect how many more people get sick and how many more people die. It’s as stark and simple as that,” he said.

He added the new UK strain of the virus is currently in Ireland and can rapidly lead to growth well beyond previous worst-case scenarios.

Those arriving in Ireland from the UK and South Africa will now be required to provide a negative PCR test within the previous 72 hour period and present it to border officials or gardaí at ports or airports.

This will be punishable with a fine or a possible custodial sentence.

It’s likely other countries will be added to this requirement in the coming days.

While Mr Martin welcomed the news of the approval of the Moderna vaccine, he warned: “Truly enormous damage can be done if we let down our guard against the virus in any way in the time ahead.” 

The government estimates that about 35,000 people will be vaccinated this week, mostly health care workers and some people in nursing homes.

With the approval of the Moderna vaccine, this could potentially rise to 60,000 jabs a week in February, and then “much more” when the AstraZeneca vaccine becomes available.

It is hoped by the end of March all nursing home residents and staff, health care workers on the front line, the very elderly and the chronically ill will be vaccinated.

'We're facing into what's going to be a really dark January'

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said: "Hospitals - our hospitals were not overwhelmed in the first wave - are at serious risk of being so later this month.” 
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said: "Hospitals - our hospitals were not overwhelmed in the first wave - are at serious risk of being so later this month.” 

Noting that some businesses will close "for the last time" due to the restrictions, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said: “This is bad and it's getting worse.” 

He added restrictions brought in on December 24 are not yet showing any effects, but they will.

“January is the month in which we all stay in. We're facing into what's going to be a really dark January. The third wave, that could be much worse than the first.

Hospitals - our hospitals were not overwhelmed in the first wave - are at serious risk of being so later this month. 

The cabinet agreed that the pandemic unemployment payment and employment wage subsidy scheme will remain in place, at the current rates, at least until March 31.

The €2bn contingency fund for problems that might arise and costs that might arise as a result of Brexit, or Covid, has now been drawn down.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and Minister for Public Expenditure Micheal McGrath are said to be in contact with banks to ensure that people can receive some relief from mortgages and loans if they have been affected by lockdown.

The Taoiseach said that he has been in contact with gardaí and said people, in general, have been following the rules.

He added: “No one should be selling takeaway pints, the message is to stay home.

"It’s not on that anyone could be selling pints, forget about selling pints.”

A 'rushed and reckless decision' - INTO raises concerns over reopening of schools for children with special needs

INTO General Secretary John Boyle: "How is it safe for staff or children to attend special education settings?” File Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
INTO General Secretary John Boyle: "How is it safe for staff or children to attend special education settings?” File Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Serious concerns have been raised over the “rushed and reckless decision” to reopen specialised schools for children with special educational needs on Monday despite widespread school closures.

While schooling has switched to remote learning for the vast majority of students, special schools, special classes, and other specialised settings have been directed by the Government to reopen on Monday.

However, education stakeholders say they expressed concerns about these plans at a “very short briefing meeting” that took place before the announcement by the Taoiseach.

Special schools, students, and staff do not exist in a bubble separate from wider society, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said in a statement.

It was not consulted regarded these plans prior to the briefing.

“In light of the deteriorating public health landscape and the increasing impact of the new Covid-19 variant, questions now need to be asked about elements of the government’s plan," said John Boyle, INTO general secretary.

"How is it safe for staff or children to attend special education settings?” 

The union is seeking urgent meetings with the Department of Education and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) to assess the steps that will be taken to protect the health and welfare of INTO members, he added.

“The government must also publish NPHET’s latest advice alongside up-to-date public health figures setting out the public health basis for the decision to provide special education as normal within schools.”

 “It’s imperative that these members required to facilitate face to face learning, as front-line workers during the worst of the pandemic, should receive early vaccination and proper protection in the workplace.”

Meanwhile, the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) has said the union has been given "no access" to medical data demonstrating that schools are sufficiently safe for students and teachers.

The union said it is concerned that today’s Government decision has been made without full consideration of potential consequences to current public health objectives.

Gardaí to introduce additional policing measures

Gardaí say further static checkpoints will be placed on national routes, as part of Operation Fanacht. File Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Gardaí say further static checkpoints will be placed on national routes, as part of Operation Fanacht. File Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

An Garda Síochána says it will introduce additional policing measures to support the Covid-19 restrictions announced by Government today.

Further static checkpoints will be placed on national routes, as part of Operation Fanacht. 

Gardaí say these will commence from 7am tomorrow morning and will be supported by local checkpoints introduced last week.

Several Garda united will also be re-deployed to the front line, and will be engaged in high-visibility patrolling of key locations like public amenities, parks and other scenic areas.

Gardaí say they will continue to investigate any alleged breaches of Public Health regulations under Operation Navigation (Licensed Premises) and Operation Treoraim (Non Essential Retail).  

Gardaí have also stressed that while they will be monitoring for people travelling outside their home and within the 5km restriction limit, these measures do not apply in the case of domestic violence or to escape a risk of harm, whether to the person or to another person.

Gardaí say they understand that the move to increased restrictions will increase the anxiety and fear felt by those who may be victims of domestic abuse, but that they will continue to receive highest priority response for service under Operation Faoiseamh.

Speaking this afternoon, Speaking today Deputy Commissioner John Twomey, Policing and Security said keeping people safe during this pandemic remained An Garda Síochána's "number one priority." 

"We all have a role to play in tackling the pandemic. 

"To date, there has been widespread compliance with public health advice and regulations."

Commissioner Twomey urged people to continue to adhere to the latest public health advice. 

"This is a difficult time for people, particularly those who feel vulnerable or isolated. 

"If you need help or know someone who does, please contact your local Garda station," he added.

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