Hopes of a normal Christmas have been dashed as Taoiseach Micheál Martin confirmed a raft of Covid-19 restrictions for the festive period.
Following an emergency meeting of Cabinet, ministers last night adopted all recommendations put forward by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), despite some concern the measures are “over the top”.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar admitted the Government is introducing new restrictions at a time of falling hospitalisations, but Nphet had earlier warned that Covid case numbers could surge to 15,000 a day after Christmas if the Omicron variant becomes dominant.
In an address to the nation, the Taoiseach announced a tightening of rules for restaurants and pubs and limits on household visits.
The measures announced include:
- The closure of nightclubs;
- That visits to homes over Christmas be kept to people from a maximum of three other households — four households in total;
- The return of strict social distancing in bars and restaurants — table service only and a 1m distance between groups;
- A maximum of six adults per table;
- No multiple table bookings;
- The continuation of a midnight closing time for pubs and restaurants;
- A maximum of 50% capacity for entertainment, cultural, community, and sporting events, which must all be fully seated;
- That Covid passes be required for gyms and leisure centres.
Vaccine passes and 50% capacity limits will not apply to weddings.
The measures announced last night will be implemented from December 7 until January 9.
Mr Varadkar confirmed the household visit rule will be advisory — gardaí will not be checking people's homes.
The Pandemic Unemployment Payment will reopen next week to those in the hospitality and events sector who have lost their jobs, and the Covid-19 Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS) will be extended to a maximum of €500 per week.
The CRSS will change to a weekly payment and businesses affected by new restrictions can apply for help with running costs.
Mr Varadkar said the Government is reacting to very serious public health advice.
"Increased social mixing over Christmas, flu season, and Omicron, those three risks are why we are making this announcement," he said.
Mr Martin said he understood and shared "the disappointment and frustration" his announcement would cause.
He commended people for reducing social interactions, and for getting vaccines and boosters in recent weeks, but said the emergence of the Omicron variant required a re-evaluation of public health guidelines.
At Cabinet, thehas confirmed that the issue of Nphet communications was dealt with.
In a bid to respond to the dysfunctional operation of communications this week, Ministers decided that all communications on Covid were now to be managed by and channelled through the Government Information Service.
Cabinet sources said this was a direct response to a feeling that Nphet has become too much of a "political force".
Just moments before the Taoiseach began to speak, officials from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre confirmed a further 5,419 new cases of Covid-19 here.
The Taoiseach said it is "not a fair assessment" to say the new restrictions are a failure of Government.
"The vast bulk of society is open and remains open," he said.
"Every phase of this will be different, there has been a strong rebound in the economy, thousands of jobs have come back, certain sectors are at full throttle, that is a measure of what we've been doing.
"The future is about making necessary adjustments to face whatever comes at us. This won't end with one big bang where we wake up and say 'Covid is over'."