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Christmas squeeze on home visits and hospitality as Nphet wants return of restrictions

- Health officials want limits on table numbers and multiple bookings - Live venues could be seated only if recommendations accepted, meaning closure of nightclubs - Call for visits to be limited to four households per home
Tony Holohan

Tony Holohan

Philip Ryan, John Downing and Gabija Gataveckaite

A SQUEEZE could be placed on pre-Christmas socialising through new restrictions on household visits and hospitality.

Having already called on parents to rein in their children’s activities, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) now wants adults to do likewise.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan’s team is believed to have made a series of new recommendations aimed at reducing the spread of Covid, particularly in homes and pubs, over the coming weeks.

Just six weeks on from the widespread reopening of the hospitality sector, Nphet wants stricter rules brought back in, including a limit to the numbers sitting at tables and a ban on multiple bookings.

Among the proposals is that live venues will be seated only, which would lead to the closure of nightclubs.

If implemented, the combination of measures will seriously dampen the night-time economy ahead of the festive season. Already pubs and restaurants are reporting the widespread cancellation of Christmas parties.

Pressure is mounting for state supports to be introduced to ensure businesses are not financially impacted by restrictions which either force them to close or lose out on revenue during what would normally be their busiest period of the year.

Nphet also issued guidance on household visits and urged people to reduce their socialising in large groups of mixed households as much as possible over Christmas. Sources said they want household visits limited to four households in one home.

The group is also concerned about vulnerable people who have not got their booster shot mixing with those whose vaccination efficacy has waned.

There are currently no restrictions on household visits but there will be far more socialising in homes over the coming weeks, which risks sparking high rates of transmission.

Nphet met yesterday to assess the latest spread of the virus and make recommendations to Government.

Ministers will meet in the coming days to decide how much of Nphet’s advice to accept.

It comes on top of new rules requiring anyone arriving into Ireland to have a negative Covid test. The Dáil also passed legislation last night allowing for the reintroduction of mandatory hotel quarantine.

Speaking in the Dáil, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar gave the strongest signal yet that special aid is likely for the hospitality sector.

Industry lobby groups have been demanding that the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) returns to its original rate after the state support was reduced this week.

The Fine Gael leader said at its height 650,000 workers were supported by various payments, but this number was now dramatically reduced.

Mr Varadkar said the Government would await Nphet’s advice and it would not make sense to announce supports before that happened.

However, it would also look at supports targeted at sectors such as catering.

“I think it is important that everything is targeted at the sectors which need it,” Mr Varadkar said. He said a decision on this was likely very soon.

Mr Varadkar later told the Dáil the wage subsidy scheme had cost the taxpayer €400m to date and was the biggest state intervention since the bank rescue schemes of over a decade ago.

He stressed it was not currently applied to the hospitality, entertainment, arts or aviation sectors.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy said the late-night entertainment sector had effectively now been shut down after being allowed to open for just three weeks.

She said people were already heeding expert advice to significantly reduce levels of social contacts and she knew of one catering business which had 80pc of its bookings cancelled and expected the same would happen to the final 20pc.

She said there was an urgent need for income supports for catering workers, and wage and other subsidies for their employers.

She said a big Christmas trade had been hoped for to help these struggling businesses get through the lean period of January and February, but that hope was now gone. “But supports are either being withdrawn or eroded,” Ms Murphy said.

She added the Government appeared to be applying a principle of “Darwinian business survival of the fittest”.

Mr Varadkar said he accepted what Ms Murphy had said and the catering sector risked losing its “Christmas harvest”.

“Even though we did not close any events, the people are voting with their feet,” Mr Varadkar said.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin insisted he expects schools to reopen after the Christmas break.

“We anticipate that schools will be reopening, of course,” Mr Martin said.

“Our view is that much of what we’re doing now will protect schools so, yes, schools will reopen in the new year.”

Mr Martin thanked the public for answering the the “call to arms” by the Government two weeks ago to reduce socialising.

“We have managed as a country to help stabilise the Delta wave in so far as the impact on hospitals and ICU,” he said.

He said there are about 40,000 booster doses administered daily and last week about 10,000 people came forward for their first vaccine. The wider impact of the Omicron variant will be known in two weeks after scientists examine more data for a more “comprehensive” picture.

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