Cautious approach to easing lockdown required, says Donnelly

Minister for Health say key focus is keeping people safe as removal of restrictions delayed

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly arriving for the Cabinet Meeting in Dublin Castle on Tuesday. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos Dublin

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly arriving for the Cabinet Meeting in Dublin Castle on Tuesday. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos Dublin

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said that while he is disappointed the fourth phase of easing lockdown could not go ahead as planned, the Government had made the decision with the safety of citizens in mind.

Mr Donnelly said the Government must take a cautious approach to lifting coronavirus restrictions and that the key focus is on keeping people safe, opening schools and getting the economy open.

The Minister was speaking following a Cabinet decision on Tuesday to delay the already-paused phase four of reopening society for a further three weeks.

Pubs that do not serve food and nightclubs will remain closed until September at least, it was announced. Current strict limits of 50 on numbers congregating indoors, and 200 outdoors, will remain in place, a move that disappointed many sporting bodies and wedding venues. The numbers had been due to increase to 100 indoors and 500 outdoors.

The Government will look closely at the possibility of having regional or county decisions in the future, Mr Donnelly told Morning Ireland on Wednesday. The concern, the Minister said, is that things are finely balanced and could get out of control.

Ireland is in a dynamic situation and the Government must respond dynamically, said Mr Donnelly.

In a press conference following the Government meeting on Tuesday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin also announced face masks will become mandatory in all shops and retail centres from Monday, and pubs serving food and restaurants will be required to close at 11pm.

Separately, the Cabinet also decided to remove five states or territories from the “green list” of 15 from which passengers arriving into Ireland would not need to quarantine. They are Malta, Cyprus, San Marino, Gibraltar and Monaco.

The decision to retrench the current phase of lockdown came after a further 45 confirmed cases was confirmed by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) on Tuesday.

Mr Martin justified the decision in light of recent coronavirus figures which have seen the 14-day incidence of cases triple in the last month.

“I know that this will come as a blow to pub owners and I want them to know that I have enormous sympathy for their plight,” said Mr Martin.

“This virus is taking away their ability to earn a living.”

He said: “International evidence shows very clearly that pubs and nightclubs reopening too early leads directly and inextricably to increased community transmission.

“And that is the very worst thing that could happen here. It would be very damaging for our economy in the longer term, it would be very damaging for our plan to reopen schools safely and it would of course be very damaging for our public health.”

Vintners’ representatives responded angrily to the decision, saying the Government had abandoned the 3,500 smaller pubs across Ireland now facing a “full-blown crisis”.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said Ireland had lost some ground in its battle with coronavirus. “The truth is the pandemic is blazing around the world. In fact it is worse than ever,” he said.

“Even in Europe the number of new cases is rising again,” he said, though he said it was largely under control in the EU.

Reacting to the decision to keep non-food-serving establishments shuttered for at least another three weeks, publicans said they were now facing a “full-blown crisis”.

In a joint statement on Tuesday, the Licensed Vintners Association (LVA) and the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) said publicans were now in “fury and despair”, and called for “immediate” aid.

“This is Groundhog Day for the trade as twice now the reopening of pubs has been postponed,” said VFI chief executive Pádraig Cribben. “The Government has effectively denied pubs the ability to trade. As a result it will have to provide substantial supports to our members, many of whom are deeply agitated at what they feel is the State abandoning a vital part of the hospitality sector.”

Donall O’Keeffe, chief executive of the LVA, said pubs have been abandoned:

“We’re repeatedly being told that opening the pubs ‘could lead to an increase in the virus’. Well, when will that not be the case?”

The 25,000 people working in pubs now faced “intolerable pressure”, said the bodies, who complained about a lack of guidance from the Government or reassurance about the future.

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