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next steps Covid restrictions including wearing of masks to be almost completely removed next week

Cabinet agrees to end almost all remaining health restrictions, including mask-wearing, from next Monday

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(Stock photo)

(Stock photo)

(Stock photo)

The Cabinet has agreed to end almost all remaining health restrictions, including mask-wearing, from next Monday.

Mask-wearing in schools, indoor retail settings and on public transport will be voluntary from February 28. Masks will still be required in healthcare settings.

Public transport passengers will be advised to wear masks, but it will not be set in law.

Staggered breaks, masks, pods and physical distancing will end in schools next week.

And from Monday, close contacts will not be required to isolate or restrict movements, unless they are symptomatic.

There was no formal decision made to stand down Nphet, but it is intended that it may be replaced with a smaller group.

Four decisions were made by ministers this morning, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said.

“The first was that there will be no vaccine mandates. Nphet has recommended that we should not have vaccine mandates in Ireland, and the mask mandates will end on the 28th.

“There'll be no legal requirement to wear a mask any more in any setting, but it will still be advised in public transport and also in health care settings.”

There are people who may wish to continue to wear a mask, Mr Varadkar said, such as people who have underlying conditions, are immunocompromised, or are vulnerable.

“They wish to choose to do so, and of course, there is no reason why they should not.”

Mr Varadkar predicted “a more normal school and childcare experience from Monday”.

Some measures will remain in place, however, including recommendations around hygiene, ventilation and advice that people should stay home if they're sick.

There are significant changes being made in relation to testing and close contacts, the Tanaiste said.

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But for people who have confirmed Covid infection through a positive attitude test or PCR test, the rules stay the same. That is “to isolate, to stay in your room for seven days. And on days eight, nine and 10 to wear a mask. That doesn't change,” he said.

Rules are also changing are for close contacts.

“So if you're a close contact, there's no longer any requirements to restrict your movements or to isolate — unless you have symptoms.

“If you're a close contact, unless you have symptoms, there will no longer be requirements to isolate or restrict your movements as of Monday.”

One exception is healthcare workers who will be advised to have repeat antigen testing.

“The rules around testing again are going to change.”

There will be no advised testing for people who are under 55 and in good health or over 55s who are fully boosted, he said.

Covid tests “will be for people who are aged over 55 and older, who were not boosted or people who are pregnant,” he said.

The same would apply to those with medical conditions, those who are immunocompromised, and those who live in the same household as such persons.

The Government is “very much limiting the testing to those who are sick or immunocompromised, who are elderly and unvaccinated,” he said.

It was about learning to live with an endemic virus, “one that we manage in the way that we would have managed viruses like the flu for example, in the past,” he said.

Nphet is being stood down and there will be a new Covid expert group of about seven experts, but “not necessarily” answerable to the Chief Medical Officer, Mr Varadkar said. The chair has yet to be decided.

There will be a further meeting of the cabinet subcommittee on Covid next week to consider “the next steps beyond,” the ending of the general mask mandate, he added.

Teacher unions have expressed concern at the decision to scrap mask wearing and physical distancing measures in schools from next week.

One second level, union, the TUI, warned that it increased potential for disruption to the studies of those students who are sitting Leaving Cert or Junior Cycle exams this year,

Many students are currently undertaking second components of assessment such as projects or portfolio work, with orals and music practical at Easter, followed by the written exams in June.

“Maintenance of all mitigation measures would have been of clear value in minimising disruption and protecting the service to these students and to others facing high stakes exams in further and higher education,” said TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie.

The union is also concerned for students, teachers and lecturers who are medically vulnerable in terms of Covid, or who have family members who are vulnerable.

Mr Gillespie said that notwithstanding their concerns, it remained the TUI position to be guided by public health advice, “but the impact of this change on education settings must be kept under review.”

Meanwhile, the primary teachers’ union, INTO, has also expressed concern at the speed of dismantling of Covid-related public health supports in schools.

Teacher unions had called for a gradual easing of restrictions in schools and the INTO said today that was what was needed to offer extra protection to everyone in primary and special schools.

It noted that since Christmas, 100,000 children of school going age had tested positive for Covid, with an average of 75 children under 14 hospitalised every week.

“Sadly, some young children ended up in paediatric intensive care or high dependency units last week. This is the public health context upon which decisions regarding schools are being made today.

“In addition, low levels of attendance of both pupils and staff have hugely impacted schools across the country for the last few months,” the union stated.

Speaking earlier this week, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Donnelly said the changes came on the back of expert advice.

"We have listened to our medical experts right the way through Covid and that’s what Nphet has been there for they have done an incredible job sometimes they have had to recommend decisions that were unpopular and there has been a lot of public debate around that," he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

"But, the recommendations now coming from our Nphet team are clear and I think we are likely to discuss that in Cabinet this morning and accept recommendations whereby masks would remain in medical settings, in particular, we will also be advising people to use their own judgment and I think a lot of people will continue to wear masks on public transport for example and in other potentially crowded settings, but I don’t think we will see a requirement by law in terms of regulation for that.

"Let's wait and see what’s recommended by Government, I would like to see what Stephen Donnelly has to say."

It comes as England is set to drop all remaining Covid restrictions from Thursday, and as booster Covid jabs are to be offered to children aged 12 to 15 in Ireland for the first time.

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