Changes to the vaccine rollout plan have angered gardaí and teachers who say they are 'shocked and dismayed' at the overhaul to the prioritisation list.
The Taoiseach announced yesterday that people will be allowed to travel within their county from April 12, while a new 'vaccine bonus' — permitting two fully vaccinated households or people to meet socially indoors — comes into force immediately.
However, surprise changes to the vaccination rollout to prioritise people based on age were greeted with anger and frustration from those representing workers who had been due to get the jab ahead of the general public.
Under the new plan, once the over-70s and the vulnerable are vaccinated, the rollout will focus on people based on age, no longer prioritising teachers and gardaí, as had been planned.
The Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) said it was "shocked and dismayed" by the changes to the vaccine programme, claiming the decision is "totally at odds" with the objective to keep schools open, while the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) said it is seeking an emergency meeting with the Department of Education over the change.
The president of the Garda Representative Association (GRA), Frank Thornton, has described the decision to change the vaccine programme to an age-based system as “a sucker punch” to his members.
The decision “downgraded” the work of gardaí and disregarded the risks they take while policing the pandemic.
Mr Thornton pointed out that when the GRA met with the Minister for Justice on March 18 she had agreed that An Garda Síochana should be vaccinated when the vulnerable cohort was completed.
“It beggars belief,” he said, adding that it sends a misleading signal that gardaí on the frontline are no more at risk than someone working from home.
The morale of members of the force was “absolutely on the floor” since the announcement, he told RTÉ's Morning Ireland.
The issue will be discussed at length by the GRA, he said and options will be considered. “The health and safety of our members is our priority, clearly it is not important to others.”
However, the Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has defended the changes, saying the government is reflecting the advice from medical experts.
"We are so indebted to all of the work that our frontline public servants have done, so we will be engaging with them today," he said.
"The biggest gain that we can make in our safety as a country and the safety of our public servants, is to have as much of our country vaccinated as possible, and the advice that the government received is that if we proceeded on the basis of occupation, it would slow down the efficiency.
"The advice that we have at the moment is crystal clear to the government, with the quantity of vaccines that we have available in the run-up to the summer, if we're looking to vaccinate as many people as possible, the most efficient way of doing it, is on the basis of age."
Taoiseach Micheál Martin also strongly defended the move last night, saying it was based on clinical advice and would "simplify and accelerate" the vaccination programme.
"We know that the older you are, the more vulnerable you are to illness and mortality," said Mr Martin.
Sources said concerns were raised by ministers at Cabinet but none of them directly opposed the changes.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said the move to an age-based approach will make the rollout more efficient at higher volumes of vaccinations.
“We have the benefit of learning from our own experience over the past three months and what has been shown to be most effective internationally.
"It means for the first time that we can give better information to the very reasonable question, ‘when will I be vaccinated?’" said Mr Donnelly.
Among the more surprising aspects of the easing of restrictions is the return of senior intercounty GAA teams to training from April 19, before the likes of golf and tennis.
The announcement comes as gardaí confirmed they are investigating breaches of level 5 Covid-19 restrictions by a GAA club in West Cork for organising training sessions.
Theunderstands that the incident occurred earlier this month and Cork GAA last night warned there will be repercussions for a club if it is proven to have contravened Covid-19 regulations.
“Public health guidance on training is very clear. Any club found to have been in breach of that guidance will face consequences as a result,” it said.
Asked why the GAA had been prioritised over the return of sports training for children, which will not be allowed until April 26, the Taoiseach said everything had to be "weighed up" in reaching decisions.
He said recent performances by the Irish rugby team had given the public "a lift" which he said is also important.
Healthcare workers and those in groups who have already been vaccinated will immediately benefit from the so-called 'vaccine bonus', but Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the “rule of twos” would apply to these indoor social visits.
Mr Varadkar also said an enhanced contact tracing system, which will look back on a person's contacts for the previous seven days if they test positive, is to be rolled out.
In a televised speech to the nation, Mr Martin said that "a lot has been asked of everyone" over the past year and it "has been and continues to be exceptionally difficult", but he said the public should keep an eye on the purpose of restrictions which have saved lives.
“We are on the final stretch of this terrible journey. This summer, our businesses and our public services will safely reopen. We will finally be meeting and enjoying the company of friends and family once again," he said.
Mr Martin said the B117 variant had changed the landscape with regard to the virus but added that vaccines were "transformative" and "the way out".
He said the Government is still looking at a target of having 80% of people vaccinated by the end of June.
While there was a broad welcome for the easing of restrictions and the partial clarity afforded in some areas, the plan was criticised from within the Government, with Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry claiming "live horse and get grass is not a strategy".
"We cannot continue as we are," said Mr MacSharry. "A fourth wave is mathematical certainty and the mood of the nation is absolutely at breaking point. We must try a real strategy and cannot continue with total risk aversion."