Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has suggested that the Covid-19 pandemic could continue into next winter saying we need to “seize the summer” while preparing for a possible resurgence.
It comes as the Government announced new restrictions in response to the continued high level of cases of the virus and the threat of the new Omicron variant.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin listed the new restrictions on the hospitality and entertainment sectors in a televised address where he told the country he shares “the disappointment and frustration that this will cause”.
Mr Martin said it is “not about going back to the days of lockdowns” but about adjusting the guidelines to the current threat from the virus.
The Government has accepted recommendations made by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) which will be in place from next Tuesday, December 7th until January 9th.
Under the new measures nightclubs will closed and there will be tighter measures adopted again in bars, restaurants and hotels.
Tables will be limited to six individuals and no multiple bookings will be allowed though closing time remains at midnight.
There is to be a maximum of 50 per cent capacity at indoor entertainment and sporting events.
Covid passes will be required for gyms, leisure centres, and hotel bars and restaurants.
Mr Martin confirmed the Government has adopted Nphet’s advice on household visits and limiting them to three other households, while acknowledging the need for flexibility.
Mr Varadkar said this will be advice and it won’t be enforced by gardaí. The Government is not telling people what they can and can’t do in their own homes, he said.
The current rules for weddings remain unchanged.
At a press conference on Friday evening it was put to Mr Martin that he had previously said that once a sector was opened it would not close again and the new measures amounted to an admission of failure.
He replied: “Not at all. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment… the threats with the virus change and I think the vast bulk of society is open and remains open.”
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Strong seasonal component
Mr Varadkar conceded that the pandemic could still be around next winter.
He said some experts have suggested the pandemic could last five years adding: “I certainly hope that’s not the case.”
Mr Varadkar said it is clear there is a strong seasonal component and that means two things have to be done.
Firstly he said “we need to seize the summer”.
“The last two summers we had the toughest restrictions in Europe… I’m determined that will not be the case next summer. We should open safely if we can”.
Secondly, he said: “We also need to prepare for next winter while dealing with this winter because there will be new variants”.
That includes building up the capacity of our health service and in the test, trace and isolate system, which he said the Government has been doing.
Mr Varadkar did say that scientists believe they can tweak vaccines for new variants within three months and there will new anti-viral tablets available next year and “that will help too”.
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said one thing that gives him confidence is the booster vaccine campaign and indications that the jabs will still provide protection from the Omicron variant.
The Government announced a series of expanded financial supports for the hospitality and entertainment sectors and workers who may lose their jobs.
The Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) will be temporarily reopened to new entrants in order to cater for people who lose their jobs as a result of the restrictions. Further details are to be announced in the coming days.
There is to be an extra €25 million to support the live entertainment sector.
Mr Varadkar said that the Covid Response Support Scheme (CRSS) will be reformed to help more businesses.
Up until now it was only paid to businesses that had to close or saw a 75 per cent reduction in turnover. It will now apply to businesses like restaurants, pubs, theatres and nightclubs who are impacted by the restrictions though there will be terms and conditions involved. Minister Paschal Donohoe is looking at raising the weekly €5,000 cap.
The Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) – the rates of which were cut this week – will stay at the new reduced rates.
Mr Varadkar said this is because the majority of businesses and jobs supported by the EWSS are not in sectors affected by the new restrictions.
He said the Government want to make sure EWSS is targeted at those that need it the most.
There will be a €62.3 million targeted commercial rates waiver for the first three months of 2022 for businesses in the hospitality and entertainment sector that are impacted by the restrictions.
Opposition parties reacted negatively to the Government’s latest move on restrictions.
Sinn Féin’s health spokesman David Cullinane said: “Today is a disappointing day with a feeling of going backwards.”
He claimed the Government has been “too quick to take away supports for workers and businesses and too slow to respond on antigen testing, ventilation and hospital capacity”.
He accused the Coalition of making “a dogs dinner of many measures” and failing to plan.
Labour Party health spokesman Duncan Smith said: “What we need now is a fundamental reset, and a new long term strategy to address the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This virus is not going away, and the latest variant will test our health services further.
“The new restrictions announced have many people very frustrated, worried, and anxious about what happens next because despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, we still can’t live our lives as we once did,” he said.