The decision to tighten restrictions and limit social interactions was taken to protect the reopening of schools, a top Government official has said.
Assistant secretary general at the Department of Taoiseach Liz Canavan said confirmed cases of Covid-19 have increased from a low of 61 cases a week to 533 cases last week.
The Government on Tuesday night announced new restrictions to combat the spread of coronavirus after public health experts warned the Government of multiple and significant outbreaks associated with households, workplaces and social activities.
People have been asked to work from home and avoid public transport until September 13th, while the number of people permitted to attend both indoor and outdoor events have been slashed. Under the tightened restrictions, all visits to homes will be limited to six people indoors and outdoors.
Sport events and matches will once again be behind closed doors while people over 70 and those who are medically vulnerable are to be asked to limit their interactions to a “very small network” for short periods.
“The 14 day cumulative cases per hundred thousand of the population is now at 26. Thankfully, so far, the increase in cases has not been matched by any significant increase in our hospitals or an increase in the numbers dying from the disease,” she said.
“However, if we allow the continued rising cases to go unchecked and to become widespread within our communities, we risk seeing increased danger to the most vulnerable in our community. We also risk seeing that increased demand on our hospitals and on those frontline health care workers who have done so much to protect us and our loved ones while all the time risking their own health. We risk undoing the progress we have made towards reopening schools and resuming health care. We therefore risk having to introduce even more restrictive measures.”
“That is why Government has decided to act now, to act before that happens, to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and to ensure we can safely reopen our schools next week.”
Ms Canavan said the reopening of schools is an “absolute priority” for both the National Public Health Emergency Team and the Government. “These measures are being introduced to protect that reopening. The measures are being put in place across the country, until the 13th of September, in an effort to stop the virus by limiting congregation and social interaction among households.”
She added: “This is because these are the places and settings where we have seen clusters emerge. We know about workplace clusters. However, these other places are now also seeing clusters, and they have been occurring, all over the country.”
Ms Canavan said that the new measures are not being introduced to punish any particular group or to target any particular sector “but to balance the need to remain as open as we can in society and business with ensuring this increase in cases does not spread in an uncontrolled way in the community”.
She said the measures were aimed at impromptu but normal gatherings. “That is why we’re limiting the numbers congregating in houses and gardens. It’s why we’re saying that sporting fixtures should temporarily take place behind closed doors.”
“This is not about stopping these organized activities. It is about introducing temporary restrictions now so that we ensure we don’t have to stop these activities all together.”
In terms of restaurants, Ms Canavan reiterated the new closing time of 11.30pm and said there should be a maximum of six in a group seated at a table and “no formal or informal events or parties should be organised in these premises.”
She said sporting events and matches can continue to take place but behind closed doors and with strict adherence to the two metre physical distancing before and after the event while team huddles should be avoided.
In terms of school transport she said arrangements will proceed as planned for the reopening of schools and that these arrangements were different to those on normal public transport.
“These arrangements are different to general public transport. The plans in place already have additional mitigations such as assigned seats with seating managed so that children of the same household sit together or children from the same class sit together.”
As part of the Government’s new guidance, those over 70 or those who are medically vulnerable are being asked to restrict their movements.
“People in this group can of course still meet with friends and get outside for exercise. That’s as important as it is for anyone. However, the advice is to reduce your risk you need to reduce your contacts. That means, for example, avoiding public transport, shopping during designated hours… and generally limiting your contacts to a smaller circle,” Ms Canavan said.
Earlier, Minister for Climate Action Eamon Ryan has acknowledged that are contradictions in the Government’s new Covid-19 restrictions.
The Green Party leader said he could see the contradiction in the advice that only six people can gather indoors, but that schools could have indoor classes of 20-30 pupils and 50 people could attend a wedding.
Mr Ryan acknowledged problems with Covid-19 testing and tracing, particularly with how long the process takes. He said the system had been caught off guard and the fault for that lay with “the entire political system”. This was not good enough, he admitted.
He called for a “root and branch” investigation into the meat industry following several outbreaks in meat plants. The investigation should be done to ensure that all plants have occupational health systems in place, he said.
The Government had already indicated that it was committed to changing the direct provision system, he added.
Also on Tuesday, the chairman of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group said the public had stopped being as careful as they were earlier in the pandemic.
Professor Philip Nolan told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland “unless we move quickly and firmly now to prevent further transmission from households into communities, we will see case numbers rising to numbers that are unsustainable.”
People had “relaxed a little” and the concern was that the virus was “like fire in a tinder box,” he said.
He also admitted there were weaknesses with the test and trace system “but the department is working on that”.