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corona exit 15-person pub limit and €9 meal could be scrapped and intercounty travel could be allowed as early as May 10

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TÁNAISTE Leo Varadkar has indicated the 15-person limit for outdoor dining and the €9 substantial meal rule will be scrapped when the hospitality sector reopens.

Mr Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party that the distinction between pubs that serve food and so-called wet pubs that don’t, will be scrapped, with hospitality to be treated “equally” when it reopens.

He said that the Government was “trying to get away” from the idea of a 15-person limit on outdoor dining and that it should be linked to space available in a venue at the meeting.

Mr Varadkar did not give any indication as to when the hospitality sector will be allowed to reopen outdoors at the meeting. However, the Government is considering whether it could be possible from May 24.

However, Mr Varadkar did signal that from next month estate agents will be allowed to hold in-person home viewings and that driving tests will also return, as well as the full return of the construction sector.

Mr Varadkar said that Tourism Minister Catherine Martin was open to including wet pubs in an outdoor dining enhancement scheme following a motion passed at last week’s parliamentary party meeting.

Mr Varadkar said the Government expects to announce a phased reopening across May of all retail and personal services and the resumption of adult sport and religious services are expected.

He told his party that “nobody can rule out the possibility of a fourth wave” of Covid-19 and that the Government would be taking a “relatively cautious approach”

He said that Fine Gael has also pushed for the Government to set out a plan for the phased return of international travel before the end of May.

Mr Varadkar gave his party unpublished Covid-19 case numbers from today, saying there were 439 cases identified in labs and a positivity rate of 2.14pc, which he said was the lowest in a very long time.

He said there had been a slight rise in cases in the last week or so but that this was to be expected with the return of schools.

Mr Varadkar expressed confidence that the vaccine programme could be increased to 200,000 or 300,000 doses per week once supply increases.

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Former ministers Joe McHugh and Paul Kehoe were among a number of members who raised concerns about Government plans to press ahead with minimum unit pricing for alcohol.

The Sunday Independent reported at the weekend that the Government was pressing ahead with the measure to restrict the sale of cheap alcohol within weeks without doing so in tandem with Northern Ireland.

Mr McHugh, who is a TD for Donegal, said the Government was “reneging” on a commitment in the programme for government to introduce MUP at the same time as Northern Ireland. He said it would create a price differential of 37pc between the North and Republic and there would be an effect. Mr Kehoe said that some retailers see the move as an attack on them.

Senator Barry Ward questioned whether it was a mistake to press ahead with the plan given it was going to lead to a disparity across the border. Senators Micheál Carrigy, Jerry Buttimer and John McGahon also raised concerns, with Mr McGahon saying it was sacrificing the border counties at the expense of the rest of the country.

Mr Varadkar told the party that no government decision had been made so there was time to consider the matter further but noted it was a “Fine Gael public health project” that he had pursued when he was Health Minister.

Minister of State for Public Health Frank Feighan said the measure was targeting “harmful drinkers to buy cheap drink” and that it cannot wait. He said it would make “no difference” to “95 to 95pc” of alcohol served in off licences and he wanted it introduced as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, intercounty travel could be permitted from as early as May 10 under plans being discussed by the Cabinet Committee on Covid-19.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has given the green light for a major easing of restrictions over the coming weeks.

This includes allowing people travel throughout the country from the second week of May.

There will be no easing of restrictions until May 10 at the earliest as coronavirus case number are still being reviewed by Nphet.

However, from this date county to county travel may be permitted. Non-essential retail services are also expected to be permitted to resume click and collect services and outdoor retailers such as garden centres will also be allowed reopen. All construction work will presume in early May too.

Later in May, hair salons and barbers will be allowed open their doors again and all non-essential retail will also resume.

Up to 50 people will be permitted to attend religious services including weddings and masses. However, there will be limits on the number of people who can attend the events outside of a church. Six people will be able to attend a wedding party indoors and 15 outdoors.

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