Covid restrictions decision due tomorrow says Harris as country drifts 'towards not reopening' 

Covid restrictions decision due tomorrow says Harris as country drifts 'towards not reopening' 

Reaction in the hospitality sector has been overwhelmingly negative to suggestions of a delay in reopening.

Higher Education Minister Simon Harris said that he expects a decision on the easing of restrictions, including indoor dining, to be made tomorrow.

After days of speculation, the Government is expected to finally be told within 24 hours whether public health advice is for indoor hospitality to remain shut beyond July 5.

Last night, ministers were accepting that a delay is likely and that it will be a case, then, of deciding whether pubs and restaurants should remain closed for an additional two or three weeks.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) will meet tonight and formulate its advice around the increased risk from the Delta variant before the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid meets ahead of a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday or Wednesday to make its decision. The leaders of the coalition were in touch by phone on Sunday, with the Taoiseach Micheál Martin also in touch with chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan about the situation.

One senior minister admitted the country is "drifting towards not reopening".

A decision had been due on Friday, but the spread of the Delta variant along with pleas from the hospitality industry for a quicker determination have seen the Government fast-forward an announcement.

Mr Harris said that he had heard requests from the hospitality industry for clarity early in the week. He said that the National Immunisation Advisory Council (Niac) meeting was key as Ireland would be "in a peculiar situation" where we had vaccines but "no arms to put them in".

Simon Harris: Expects a decision on indoor dining to be made tomorrow
Simon Harris: Expects a decision on indoor dining to be made tomorrow

However, Mr Harris said that he was "not speculating" on what Nphet would recommend. He said that the Delta variant put at risk the "really successful reopening" we have seen thus far.

He said that he hoped Ireland would not get into a "stop-start spiral". He said that he hoped the Cabinet could offer a definitive date for reopening in the event of a delay.

He said that every week "buys the country time to administer 300,000 vaccines", adding that a "very significant majority" of students will likely be vaccinated by the time colleges begin in September.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture Minister says that "we would all like to see hospitality reopen" on July 5, but said that it was important that there was "no backsliding" in terms of control of the virus.

Charlie McConalogue said that he "does not agree" that a delay would make it "impossible" to reopen pubs and restaurants later in the summer.

He told Newstalk that the Government would consider Nphet advice today and would "make the decision in a way that would help us make progress".

It is understood that if a delay is decided upon, it will only apply to indoor hospitality from July 5. It will not apply to the planned increase to 50 in the numbers allowed to attend a wedding or to the permission for four households to gather indoors.

The Government is also awaiting advice from Niac on the use of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines in younger cohorts. However, it is not yet known if this advice will come before Nphet's. In any case, one senior source said freeing up those additional vaccines won't have any major impact until the end of July, due to the need to vaccinate older people.

While several government ministers expect indoor dining to be postponed, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Sunday that reports he is veering towards a delay are "not entirely accurate".

He told RTÉ's The Week In Politics on Sunday that a decision could come by midweek, but said he could not yet give specifics. He said the "calculus and risk are different" now with regards to the spread of Covid-19 due to the Delta variant.

Mr Martin said he is conscious that this year has been devastating for the hospitality industry and any delay beyond July 5 for indoor dining will make Ireland the only country in Europe to outlaw dining indoors.

He said the Government will "make sensible decisions" over the spread of the variant, which has seen the UK delay its reopening by four weeks. However, Mr Martin said the decisions being made are different to those made before Christmas.

He denied there is no urgency to vaccinate the 60-69 age cohort, just 24% of whom have had their second dose. He said plans are being prepared to bring forward vaccination for this age group and they will all have received second doses by July 19.

Reaction in the hospitality sector has been overwhelmingly negative to suggestions of a delay.

Jonathan McDade, of Ibec lobby group Drinks Ireland said: “Ireland is an outlier in Europe with regards to reopening of indoor hospitality. Since the partial reopening of the hospitality sector here in early June, publicans and hospitality operators have proven themselves committed to, and highly capable of, delivering safe environments with stringent Covid measures in place.

"After one of the longest lockdowns in Europe, the June reopening has resulted in hugely positive consumer sentiment towards being able to enjoy a safe and sociable summer. Urgent clarity is now required from Government about July 5."

The news comes as 340 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed, with ICU admissions and hospitalisations climbing though by small amounts. 

The Department of Health reported that the number of patients in hospital with Covid-19 increased on Sunday to 47 which is up from 43 a day earlier. The number in ICU was up two to 15.

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