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leo's warning Enjoy festive season - a new six month social clampdown looms


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Shoppers on a packed Grafton Street, Dublin

Shoppers on a packed Grafton Street, Dublin

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

Shoppers on a packed Grafton Street, Dublin

Gatherings will still have restrictions for at least the next three months and probably six, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has warned.

Despite the imminent roll-out of a vaccine, Mr Varadkar said expectations of a return to normality must be tempered.

His comments, made at a private Fine Gael meeting last night, suggest the Government will be prepared to clamp down on household visits again after January 6 when the easing of restrictions for the Christmas period expires.

He said it will be the second quarter of next year before the impact of a vaccination programme would be seen and noted that most of the vaccines require two doses, with a month between taking the first and second.

Mr Varadkar warned colleagues that the first few months of next year will be difficult and, according to numerous sources at the meeting, said restrictions on gatherings will be in place for at least the next three months and probably more like six.

He was optimistic that by the spring or summer of next year a critical mass of the population will be vaccinated.

His colleagues were told that rising case numbers were a concern but he said there was no suggestion of reimposing restrictions this side of Christmas.

He said the situation in the North was not good and had not been for a long time.

The Northern Ireland Executive is expected to decide today the timing and extent of any further restrictions to be imposed after a five-day relaxation over Christmas.

The North recorded eight further deaths linked to Covid-19 and 510 positive tests yesterday. The Republic saw six further deaths and 431 new infections.

Mr Varadkar told his party that North's incidence rate is four times that of the Republic and its number of new cases is equivalent to 1,500 in the Republic.

He said the Government stood ready to provide whatever support the North requested after scenes emerged of 17 ambulances lined up outside the Antrim Area Hospital with 43 patients languishing on trolleys waiting for a bed.

At a parliamentary party meeting last month, Mr Varadkar mooted the possibility of the Government advising against all non-essential travel to Northern Ireland - but he later ruled out any outright travel ban.

The National Public Health Emergency Team, which will meet today, advised against all non-essential travel both to and from the North on November 26.

The Government is not planning to implement this advice despite the worsening situation in the North.

Restrictions on people leaving their county will be relaxed from tomorrow until January 6 and a Government source confirmed that as part of this people will still be allowed to freely travel across the Border.

However there are fears this could lead to a surge in cases.

Public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally appealed to the public to think "twice or three times" about travelling.

He said Christmas and New Year gatherings involving different generations should be put back until the spring or ideally the summer, raising the spike in cases seen in the US after Thanksgiving.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan warned the disease was "moving in the wrong direction" with an increase in positivity rates, the seven-day and 14-day incidences.

"These trends are all the more troubling because of the delicate and precarious situation we are in - as a country, we are heading into a period of potential widespread inter-household and inter-generational mixing," he said.

There were 134 new cases yesterday in Dublin, 53 in Donegal, 25 in Cavan, 24 in Louth, 22 in Mayo while the remaining 173 cases were spread among the remaining counties.

There were 30 patients in intensive care in hospital.

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