The Government will agree to “Level 4-plus” restrictions for the entire country for a period of three to four weeks at a specially convened Cabinet meeting on Monday afternoon, senior sources said on Sunday night.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has called for the State to move to the highest point on the alert plan, Level 5, for six weeks in order to curb what it describes as an alarming upward trajectory of infection. A record number of new cases was recorded on two successive days over the weekend.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and senior Ministers met Nphet and other officials during 10 hours of discussions on Saturday.
Government sources said on Sunday that, while not rejecting the Nphet advice outright as happened a fortnight ago, the Cabinet would vary its recommendation by elevating the State to Level 4 status with some additional measures, and for a considerably shorter period of time.
Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris on Sunday confirmed there would be an escalation. “The Government will act tomorrow. The action will be decisive and the action will be right across the country – it will be nationwide action,” he told RTÉ’s The Week In Politics.
“It is clear now that the virus is at such a level within all our communities, the county-by-county approach will not be sufficient so tomorrow we will have to bring in more restrictions.”
Ministers from the three Coalition parties said on Sunday there were divided views within Cabinet on what additional measures were appropriate.
“There is general agreement that schools should remain open, no matter what happens, and that is also the view of Nphet,” said one Minister.
However, there is disagreement over travel restrictions and some have argued for more businesses to be allowed to remain open under Level 4.
“The GAA championship should be called off,” said another Minister. “This is an exceptional situation for amateur players. You cannot have people in their own bubbles at the weekend and then working as plumbers or doctors on Monday.”
In a video conference with Fine Gael Ministers on Sunday morning, Mr Varadkar said it was important that there was “public buy-in” to further measures and the Government needed to communicate a sense of confidence and hope.
Mr Harris was one of several Ministers who said these restrictions would be markedly different from March and April. HSE chief executive Paul Reid briefed Ministers on Saturday that capacity was not an issue at present, either for hospitals or ICUs.
“Government has to balance up a whole range of variables. Yes, we have to look at the impact of the virus but also the impacts in so many different ways on society and how we respond to it,” Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said.
Six weeks of nationwide Level 4 restrictions could cost the State €1 billion – some €400 million more than under current restrictions – in supports that the Government would have to pay people made unemployed and businesses forced to close under the new measures, estimates show.
A further 115,000 face being put out of work under Level 4.
A record daily number of new Covid-19 cases was recorded for the second day in a row on Sunday, with 1,283 new cases of the disease confirmed.
There were 31 people in ICUs on Sunday night, according to HSE data. The number in ICUs peaked at 160 during the first wave of the virus in April.
Moving from Level 3 to 4 would mean the number permitted at weddings falling from 25 to six while a move from Level 4 to 5 would mean outdoor dining and gatherings of up to 15 people ceasing.
People must stay at home and exercise within only 5km of their home under Level 5, whereas they are restricted to their county under Levels 3 and 4 except for essential purposes.
Under Level 4, only essential retail and businesses that are primarily outdoors can remain open. All other retail and personal services including hairdressers will be closed.