The chances of easing Covid-19 level 5 restrictions before the end of February are “really slim” and schools are likely to remain closed for at least another month, Government ministers have admitted.
With the country “nowhere near where it needs to be”, according to Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, another four weeks of the highest level of restrictions are set to be imposed, delivering a further hammer blow to families and business.
Amid fresh criticism of the Government’s vaccination roll-out and failure to adequately trace incoming air and sea passengers, Cabinet ministers are preparing to make a final decision on extending restrictions on Tuesday, but have warned it will be March at the earliest before any significant easing will occur.
“I just think the prospects of anything significant before the end of February are really slim.”
While several sources said the reopening of schools is at least four weeks away, next Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting will endeavour to see if that timeline can be improved upon.
There is also a strong desire to allow construction return ahead of the rest of the economy.
Hospitality businesses are facing closure until May at the earliest, sources have suggested.
The comments came as chief medical officer Tony Holohan warned that up to 1,000 people will die from Covid-19 in January alone.
He also warned that up to 40% of Covid cases among people travelling into the country “will be missed” under current Government detection measures and guidelines.
Despite this, Mr Varadkar said a system of mandatory quarantine for incoming air and sea passengers would be “disproportionate” and “unworkable”.
Responding to questions from Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy, Mr Varadkar said Ireland has 33,000 people arriving per week, with the vast majority of these people undertaking what he called “essential travel”.
Other senior Government sources sought to differ with Mr Varadkar’s assessment, saying a strict quarantine system “cannot be ruled out”.
Ms Murphy said data given to her indicates that 49% of incoming passengers fail to comply with the locator form.
She highlighted “clear deficiencies” in the current system and contrasted this with a new crackdown on residents, which has seen hundreds of fines imposed on people for breaching the 5km travel limit.
It has emerged that more than 2,000 people travelled into Ireland from formerly banned countries South Africa and the UK in the three days after the ban was lifted.
The ban placed on both countries stemmed from Government fears over new, more transmissible, variants of the virus emanating from those countries.
The UK strain, in particular, is estimated to be responsible for 45% of current cases of the virus in Ireland.
Last night, it was confirmed that a further 51 people have died from Covid-19 and 2,608 additional cases were notified.
There are now 211 patients in ICU with Covid-19, the HSE said. About half of the ICU patients are ventilated, and there are an additional 300 patients receiving high-dependency respiratory support on ordinary wards.
Meanwhile, the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines will spur the start of an economic rebound by the summer but the scars from the crisis in increased unemployment, business failures, and mortgage arrears could be long-lasting, the Central Bank has said in its latest outlook.
It also said that the “profound societal and economic” effects of the Covid crisis on an already acute housing crisis will lead to 23,000 fewer homes being built than it once thought.