The Government is pressing ahead with an almost full reopening of hospitality and entertainment from today, despite HSE warnings that the health service is under "very serious threat”.
Socially distanced queues at bar counters are to be allowed and nightclubs can operate at 100% capacity from today.
The protocols, published last night, will allow for full capacity crowds at seated music and entertainment events, while venues can set aside a dedicated standing area of up to 1,500 people.
Ahead of this weekend's Cork Jazz Festival, a fresh emphasis is being placed on the role of the Covid certs, and there will be a need to enforce the use of the certs this weekend.
Speaking in Brussels, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the Government is also looking at what role private security could play in implementing Covid vaccine certs in pubs and restaurants.
Under the new guidelines, the 11.30pm closing time for bars will be scrapped, and people can reserve multiple tables with a maximum of 10 people (or up to 15 people with children) at each table.
"You can go up to the bar in a queued orderly fashion with social distancing and order your drink, but you must come back and then sit at your table," said arts minister Catherine Martin.
She said some businesses might be disappointed that a number of restrictions, including around the wearing of face masks, will be retained, but said the measures represent “further progress”.
“If we go back to a few weeks ago and the Cork Jazz [Festival] was going to signal this grand reopening with no restrictions, everything changed just in the last seven days," she said.
Ms Martin added: "We hope this is progress for them. It’s the best we can do. It is moving in the right direction.
"We have to be cognisant of Covid too. It may not be what they hoped for on October 22, but it is still further progress on where we were in the last few days.”
However, the announcement came as HSE boss Paul Reid warned that the health service “remains under very serious threat” with the number of Covid patients in hospital up 12% on last week.
Mr Reid said over 30% of intensive care unit (ICU) capacity is now occupied by patients with Covid-19. Of those requiring intensive care, 41% are fully vaccinated, 52% are not vaccinated, and 5% are partially vaccinated.
Mr Reid added the lack of booster shots for healthcare workers is a "particular cause for concern", with 1,800 staff currently on leave due to Covid-19 and the high levels of community transmission.
Anne O’Connor, chief operating officer at the HSE, said some sites around the country are under significant pressure.
She highlighted Cork University Hospital, Galway, and Limerick, who have had to curtail some services on a day-to-day basis, due to capacity issues.
However, Ms O’Connor said that the HSE was currently “not looking at” issuing a national directive to defer scheduled care, but acknowledged if Covid patients in ICU reached 150 — as has been predicted — it would not be able to continue with scheduled care in the way they would like.
Reacting to the change in restrictions, the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) said that while anomalies remain in the guidelines for pubs compared to guidelines for nightclubs, the partial reopening of bar counters is a welcome development that will ease the staffing burden on publicans.
But Taoiseach Micheál Martin appealed to all sectors "not to be looking at the sector next door and saying: 'I want a bit of that'."