The coming weeks “will be transformative” for Ireland as an accelerating vaccine rollout and easing of restrictions will soften the once heavy blows of Covid-19, the Taoiseach has said.
Easing restrictions this week should deliver "a psychological uplift for the country” as many services reopen for the first time in months, Micheál Martin said.
And by “the latter part of the summer” possibilities for travel abroad “may open up” as Ireland participates in the EU’s Covid passport plan.
But although relaxing restrictions is “important” he urged people not to let their guard down regarding the virus which remains a threat.
“We're making good progress this week, with inter-county travel, with the hairdressers and barbers back, retail coming back, religious services coming back, outdoor sport, there’s a lot to be getting on with. Hopefully, we’ll see more and more progress as the weeks go by.
“The impact of the vaccines has been very, very positive in terms of reduced death, severe illness and hospitalisations," he said.
32 people are being treated in ICU with the virus, the lowest number since last September, he said.
And "more solid" vaccine delivery schedules from the latter part of May will allow the vaccine rollout to speed up further.
“The situation is moving with momentum now in terms of vaccination programs, we’re seeing somewhere between 220,000 - 240,000 nationally vaccinated this week,” he said.
"Next week, we’re looking at 250,000 - 270,000 doses administered.
“These are high volumes of vaccines being administered.
“What’s key to us is the hospitalisation metrics, the ICU metrics, and the reduction in severe illness, they are metrics that keep us confident about the weeks ahead.
“We’re going to progress very quickly now in May and June.
“I always said that March and April would be very, very difficult months and they did prove to be very difficult months."
But despite improvements, he urged people to remain vigilant and “keep on top of” the virus, practising public health behaviours like social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing.
“There is a virus, it’s a pandemic, it’s a once in a century event, so we have to keep our guard up in relation to it," he said.
“Particularly, we have to watch out for variants that may come along.
He urged people travelling between counties to “keep an eye on their personal behaviour” to prevent a Covid spike in areas like Cork and Kerry where virus numbers have been low as the country reopens.
“Personal behaviour is the most effective weapon we have to stop the spread of the virus and particularly in those counties where the virus is low, I think it’s important that people travelling into those counties keep an eye on their personal behaviour.
“On the other hand, it will be great that grandparents will get to see their grandchildren. That’s one of the human benefits of inter-county travel and that’s important too in terms of society.
"People deserve some freedom as well," he said.
"It’s been very difficult for young people. This is not natural for young people .... the natural instinct is to get out there and meet people. We have to balance those issues in terms of mental wellbeing, overall wellbeing of society."
“We all know the basics around the virus, we all have to be very vigilant around personal behaviour, in terms of social distancing and the mask wearing. Those are essential prerequisites for reopening the country."
The Taoiseach, 60, was speaking after he got his first Covid-19 vaccine in Cork City Hall yesterday (SUN).
Brenda Dillon, a nurse from the South Infirmary, administered the Taoiseach’s Astra Zeneca vaccine.
Cork City Hall’s vaccination centre has administered 17,000 vaccines since it opened on Good Friday.
Staff have administered approximately 1,000 jabs there a day on average but aim to give some 3,000 per day by the end of May.
Despite some public concerns about a phasing out of Covid related social welfare supports, Mr Martin said that as the economy reopens, people will naturally come off social welfare supports.
“Since last February, about 100,000 people have come off the pandemic unemployment payment which gives the lie to that notion that people will stay on the PUP because it’s better than getting a job.
"Naturally, as these sectors open up you will have more and more people coming off the PUP.
"And then we have to work out in the context of the National Economic Recovery plan how we evolve our supports for certain sectors over the medium term, particularly sectors like hospitality, tourism and travel which have suffered a lot.
Mr Martin said that he was “feeling great” after getting the jab.
He said that the EU is now working "ahead of schedule" with vaccine manufacturers on supply for 2022 and 2023 and on preparing for any new variants. Teenagers and children may also be eligible for Covid vaccines under EU plans.
He thanked the teams working in Cork and across the country for efficiently administering vaccines to the people of Ireland.