“We’re looking at an outdoor summer," the chair of Nphet’s epidemiological modelling advisory group, has warned.
Philip Nolan also said that although the progress in driving Covid numbers down has stalled, our “extremely efficacious” vaccines offer significant hope for the future and he predicted reaching below 100 cases per day "sometime" in April.
“We’re looking at an outdoor summer if I can be blunt” Mr Nolan said. “We’re looking at a summer where we socialise outdoors as best we can, we make the most of the outdoors. We continue to limit the number of social contacts that we have but not to as low a number as we have now.”
He said that holidaying at home is advised again this year but added: "The vaccination programme brings enormous hope. the darkest hour is the hour before dawn. As we vaccinate the population things will get easier."
Mr Nolan said Ireland is now essentially dealing with a completely new virus, since the B117 strain gained dominance, so the Government and Nphet must once again carefully plan and monitor any easing of public health restrictions.
Every transmission is an opportunity for the virus to mutate and create a new, harder-to-treat variant, so suppressing transmission on the island as we roll out our vaccination programme is key to preventing new variants, he added.
“The progress in terms of suppressing the virus has slowed but we’re still suppressing the virus,” he told RTÉ Radio.
"We’re at a seven-day average of about 800 cases a day. A week ago that was 930, a week before that, 1,050. The progress has slowed primarily because of the dominance of the more transmissible B117 variant."
“We need to keep going, remain hopeful that we can continue to suppress the virus but it is going to take time. It’s the reality."
He warned people to be extremely vigilant as students tentatively return to their classrooms.
“It’s true that any increased activity, any reopening, carries risks," he said.
"We have a responsibility to ensure that there is not a spillover from the reopening of schools into increased social mixing of parents on the margins of that.
“It’s very tempting, it’s very possible, but we have to say to people to be very cautious not to offer the virus an opportunity to transmit while essentially you’re bringing your kids to school.
"The nation must then examine what other high-return, low-risk activities and industries can return over the coming months."
He said it is “inappropriate” to lay out timelines or target infection rates that could indicate that certain restrictions would lift.
“We simply can’t know that. We’re dealing essentially with a new virus, the B117. So both Nphet and government have to cautiously do things … in that context."
“The reality is that outdoors is safer than indoors, the reality is that some level of mixing of households is required for us all to stay sane into the summer.”
Sectors like retail and construction “would be logically first on the list” to reopen when we’re at “safer levels of viral prevalence”, he said.