Taoiseach Micheál Martin has warned there is a “clear horizon” of Covid-19 restrictions continuing into next month, raising significant doubt over the planned reopening of schools on February 1.
Fine Gael TDs were also told by their deputy leader, Simon Coveney, that the severe restrictions will continue “well into February”.
Speaking at a private meeting of his parliamentary party, Mr Martin said: “We have some distance to go, and the recent increase in deaths show the devastation of this virus,” he said.
The Cabinet will meet next Tuesday to discuss restrictions and a final decision has not been taken yet, he said.
Mr Martin also expressed his support for education minister Norma Foley who, he says, “has done her best”.
Ms Foley told colleagues that she would “not give up”, and said she was waiting for the results of a student survey before a decision on whether the Leaving Cert exams will go ahead or not.
The Taoiseach, in reference to the strong attacks from Sinn Féin yesterday, said no party should be playing politics with an issue as sensitive as special needs education.
“We acknowledge anxiety in the workforce and population with a global pandemic,” the Taoiseach told his colleagues.
However, dampening down hopes of schools reopening next month, a senior Government source said: "The numbers are going to have to fall".
"It's also important to reiterate that public health advice continues to be that schools are safe,” the source said.
Talks with Fórsa and the Irish National Teachers' Organisation are due to resume today following the breakdown of talks on the planned reopening of special schools and classes this week.
The Taoiseach was called on to directly intervene as opposition parties rounded on Ms Foley, questioning her ability to get children with special education needs back into the classroom following two failed attempts.
Sinn Féin and Labour also hit out at Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan after she compared children with additional needs not attending school to the mother and baby homes.
The minister later apologised for her remarks, saying she in “no way intended offence towards anyone who works with children with special educational needs".
Nphet, the National Public Health Emergency Team, is due to meet today ahead of the Cabinet meeting next week.