The Taoiseach has appealed to people to stick to the guidelines and hold the line during lockdown as the vaccine programme is rolled out.
Micheál Martin also insisted that vaccines are being administered as soon as they are arriving in the country, and that the supply should ramp up significantly in April.
He made his comments during a visit this afternoon to the Cork campus of Munster Technological University (MTU) where GPs began vaccinating patients aged 85 or over, about an hour before violent scenes during an anti-lockdown protest in Dublin, where fireworks were fired at gardaí.
Mr Martin said he understands how difficult it is for people adhering to the various restrictions during this prolonged lockdown.
“I would say to people that it is very important to stick to the guidelines. I know it is very difficult for people - it really is,” he said.
“It is a very long lockdown but as we roll out the vaccination programme we give greater protection to the most vulnerable and our most senior citizens which prevents them from getting sick and prevents mortality.
"I would say to people to 'hold' - we need to vaccinate the elderly, we need to vaccinate those who are most vulnerable to the disease and it makes sense to do that."
Mr Martin said concerns are heightened in the context of the UK variant of the virus, which spreads more easily.
"We do not want to go back to where we were in January," he said.
“That is why it is important that we do this in a structured way. I know this is very, very hard on people. I do understand (the concerns) of businesses.
"There is a way of dealing with this now - we have a vaccination programme. We now know that vaccination is having an impact. I would ask people to please hold with us.
"That is how it is going to go - it is going to be very cautious and conservative as we roll-out the vaccination programme.
“It makes sense in March that we drive down the numbers. The good news is that the hospital numbers are coming down. Intensive Care Unit (ICUs) are a bit slower and hospitals are still a bit under pressure.
"So we do not want hospitals going back to where they were in January. Likewise, what we reopen now we want to keep open. We do not want to be going back and closing sectors again if we can avoid it.
"Hopefully this will put us on a steady track."
April should be "a very big month" in terms of vaccination numbers, the Taoiseach said, while should help in easing restrictions.
Vaccination centres will be used on a wider scale at that stage, he said.
"We are giving out vaccines as we get them in - there is no delay in terms of the vaccines once we get them into the country.
“Bar the Moderna (vaccine) - they asked us to keep 50% in stock for the second dose - in terms of PfizerBioNTech and AstraZeneca, we are giving them out as soon as we get them in.”
Mr Martin watched as up to 350 people aged 85 and over received the first dose of their vaccine today in from GPs from practices across Cork city and East Cork.
It will be used again for the next three weekends for this age group, before operating as a hub for GPs to administer vaccines to their patients aged 70 and over for the following weekends.
They will vaccinate an expected 2,500 people aged 70 and over by appointment over the coming weekends.
GPs will schedule appointments for their own patients and will be in direct contact with their patients to arrange the appointments.
“We are now nearing the end of the second week of the three-week programme to deliver first vaccines to those aged 85 and over by their GPs. While the majority of people receive their vaccines at their GPs’ own surgeries, the vaccination hub at MTU provides for some GPs to come together to administer the vaccine as efficiently as possible,” a spokesperson for the HSE said.
Mr Martin paid tribute to the doctors who coordinated the operation with the HSE.
“It is wonderful to see the joy on peoples faces as they get the vaccine,” Mr Martin said.
“I think we also know now that the vaccination programme is having an impact on the nursing homes and in the hospitals - the level of the disease has gone way down. Clearly, the vaccination programme is having an impact there - that is what doctors are saying to us.”
But he would not be drawn on the possible lifting of restrictions from April 5. He said public health experts want to assess the impact of the partial reopening of schools from Monday.
“I am not going to speculate about anything after April 5. We will look at it in advance and look at outdoor activities, sporting activities, construction and the 5km issue,” he said.