The Government last night announced new restrictions to combat the spread of coronavirus, partially reversing the reopening of social and economic life in recent months and warning that the country is at a “critical moment”.
Several sources also reported that there were sharp exchanges at the preceding Cabinet meeting, with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar expressing his disquiet at the way Taoiseach Micheál Martin was “doing business”.
Public health experts warned the Government of “multiple and significant outbreaks associated with households, workplaces and social activities”, Mr Martin told a news conference at Government Buildings, following a lengthy and often difficult Cabinet meeting.
Informed sources say that Mr Varadkar registered a strong protest at the cancellation of the Cabinet sub-committee meeting which he believed should have been held to discuss the measures proposed by public health advisers before the Cabinet came to its decisions, warning the Taoiseach that this was not an acceptable way to do business.
Last night, Fine Gael sources were critical of the measures announced as “incoherent”. The new restrictions mark a sharp reversal of the reopening trend of recent months, and point to a fraught few weeks ahead.
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.
NPHET letter to the Minister for Health
Restaurants and cafes can remain open with a mandatory closing time of 11.30pm – an extra half-hour’s grace on previous regulations. Sport events and matches will once again be behind closed doors.
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, to avoid public transport where possible and to shop during designated hours.
There was confusion, however, in relation to whether those over 70 could continue with any planned staycations. Mr Martin said people need to use their own judgment but the acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said he would not be advising this age group to go to a hotel.
There was also significant pushback to advice from the public health team that weddings should be restricted to six people from Monday, August 24th. Mr Martin said the situation would be reviewed but for the time being the number allowed at a wedding remained at 50.
In a letter to Government, Mr Glynn said that “Ireland’s rate of growth in new cases over the past 14 days is the fourth highest among European member states”.
He said that while the proposed measures “have the potential to arrest the current trajectory of the disease there is also the potential that the situation could deteriorate further” and impact the reopening of the education sector and resumption of non-coronavirus healthcare.
The letter also expressed “increasing concern that some premises purporting to operate as restaurants are not always doing so which is having a significant detrimental effect on the solidarity and sense of fairness that has underpinned the national effort to date”.
Mr Martin said that the Government would draft new legislation to give gardaí the power to close down and sanction any premises that was clearly flouting public health guidelines.
It comes as 190 new cases of the virus were confirmed last night. Mr Martin said that “if the current increase continues, it will be impossible to stop the spread of the virus to our most vulnerable and most compromised”.
Last night, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the Government had taken the measures to avoid the possibility of another national lockdown being introduced in the coming weeks.
It is understood that the private warnings given to the Government by public health experts are more severe than their published advice, and there are significant concerns that a big increase in cases is on the way in the coming days.