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restrictions lifted Restrictions on household visits to be eased and restaurants and gastropubs to reopen before Christmas, Taoiseach announces

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Micheal Martin admitted there are risks involved in lifting many of the pandemic restrictions (Julien Behal Photography)

Micheal Martin admitted there are risks involved in lifting many of the pandemic restrictions (Julien Behal Photography)

Micheal Martin admitted there are risks involved in lifting many of the pandemic restrictions (Julien Behal Photography)

RESTRICTIONS on household visits will be eased and restaurants and gastropubs will be opened before Christmas as the Government defied Nphet advice in a bid to save the festive season.

People will be able to have visitors from two other households for almost three weeks from December 18, with inter-county travel allowed from the same date.

Shops, gyms, hairdressers and churches will open on Tuesday and people will be able to meet in groups of six in restaurants and pubs that have their own kitchens on Friday.

As Christmas shopping in cities and towns becomes an option again, people are for the first time being asked to wear face coverings outdoors in crowded areas.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin outlined the changes to restrictions in an address to the nation ahead of last night's The Late Late Toy Show as his Government gambled on reopening the country from Level 5 lockdown.

He spoke of the devastating impact of the pandemic and how more than 3,000 people have died on the island of Ireland.

Mr Martin said people have made "huge sacrifices for the common good" in 2020 and because of this "we now have the opportunity to enjoy a different, but special Christmas."

"We can be with our loved ones and remember those we've lost. We will come through this together."

However, the National Public Health Emergency Team's (Nphet) stark letter to the Government was published even as easing of restrictions was being announced.

In it, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan warned Ireland is in a "very precarious position" and vulnerable to a sudden, sharp rise in incidence if the virus. He pointed to the average of 300 cases of the virus per day and an R number likely to rise above 1, when saying there is not enough flexibility to allow for restaurants and bars to reopen at the same time as easing restrictions on household visits.

At the same time, hospitalisation and ICU admissions have not fallen enough.

He also warned: "In simple terms, people may not follow public health advice to limit social activity".

There is a fear the most vulnerable groups will see a rise in infection and illness.

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Mr Martin admitted Nphet had been clear in its advice on not opening both the hospitality sector and people's homes to visitor.

However, he insisted that the plan to allow household visitors between December 18 and January 6 was "conservative".

The Taoiseach conceded there are "risks attached to this", but said that's why he emphasised personal behaviour as key in the easing of restrictions.

Mr Martin said the Government had to strike a balance between the public health advice and other factors such as the economy and people's social and mental well-being.

He said: "This is a balancing act and we will be working with Nphet and others to make sure that this is under constant review."

Mr Martin said the numbers should continue to go down over the next week as a result of the current restrictions and "the challenge is to get through Christmas".

He said the situation will be reviewed ahead of January 6 and there will be consideration of whether the reopenings are sustainable and sectors like non-essential retail will be watched "very carefully".

There will be "judgment calls" to be made, Mr Martin said, adding: "Some of this is on our hands in terms of how we behave."

People are being asked to use their own common sense in deciding whether to travel home for Christmas, whether within Ireland or from abroad.

Coming home from abroad, however, while not encouraged, is not banned outright - on the basis that people know their own family circumstances and are asked to show individual responsibility.

Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan said people would be the best judge of whether they should return home or not.

"Maybe they have a parent who is very lonely or maybe their parents haven't seen their children, or they have to come home at this particular time.

"We all understand that, and we will give a welcome to such people," Mr Ryan said.

He said they should follow the public health guidance and the rules under Ireland's implementation of the EU's traffic light system for International travel.

Restaurants and pubs with kitchens are set to be allowed open up from next Friday.

There will be no time limit on how long people can stay in premises where the tables are more than two metres apart and people will be able to gather in groups of up to six.

So-called 'wet pubs' that don't serve food will only be allowed operate a take-away service. Last night, the The Vintners' Federation of Ireland (VFI) said the Government decision "to spilt the trade in two" will cause huge distress to publicans and their staff who have already borne the heaviest burden since first closing back in March

"This will be the end of the road for many of our members, who were hanging on for Christmas in the hope of a busy festive period.

"With the early months of 2021 looking bleak we see many closures over the coming months," said Padraig Cribben, VFI chief executive.

The group called the Government decision to keep pubs closed while allowing food premises to reopen "a stunning act of Government hypocrisy."

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said there will be three weeks of double payments of the Covid-19 Restrictions Support Scheme for pubs and nightclubs that aren't allowed to open. Mr Varadkar said up to 150,000 people will return to work in the coming weeks.

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