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Caution Retail and transport unions urge against scrapping rules on mask-wearing

'Another 19 people died last week. It's not really a major effort to wear a mask and we should err on the side of caution'

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Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary Patricia King

Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary Patricia King

Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary Patricia King

Unions representing workers in retail and public transport have urged caution over the ending of mandatory mask rules.

The scrapping of the last population-wide public health regulations is expected to be discussed at what could be the last meeting of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) today.

The Government is anticipating a recommendation from chief medical officer Tony Holohan that will bring an end to laws that require masks to be worn in shops, schools and on public transport.

However general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Patricia King said she wants the rules to be maintained for another few months, given the level of cases and deaths.

"Personally, I think we should be cautious. This pandemic is not over," she said.

"Another 19 people died last week. It's not really a major effort to wear a mask and we should err on the side of caution.

"I think we should wait a few more months until we get nearer to a weather change when perhaps this will dissipate more," she said.

"We're still running at 10,000 to 11,000 cases a day.

"These are not really indicators that say, 'lift everything and let the whole thing rip'."

General secretary of the National Bus and Railworkers Union Dermot O'Leary said it will be led by the public health guidelines, but he is concerned about members at Bus Éireann and Irish Rail without screen protection.

"We are concerned about staff exposure to what is still a highly infectious Omicron variant," he added.

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Jonathan Hogan, assistant general secretary of Mandate, the main union for retail workers, said relaxing the rules "may cause more problems than anything else".

He said the lack of a definitive rule could lead to conflict with customers and employers.

"What happens if an employer wants the employee to wear a mask, and the employee doesn't want to?

"People have got used to these practices over the last 24 months. Just to take it away, I don't think it's as simple as that."

Meanwhile, the three teacher unions are united in their call to delay the lifting of restrictions in schools.

At present a person can face a fine of up to €1,000 and one month in prison for not wearing a mask, but this rule is likely to be scrapped in favour of a voluntary mask-wearing regime.

"The whole system is moving away from the mandated population level of measures," a senior public health source said.

Some senior public health sources have suggested that today's meeting could be the last Nphet gathering, with the group instead replaced by an expert advisory group.

The same sources said the focus is now switching to future preparedness in the event of spikes in the disease.

A roadmap for the significant scaling back of the State's mass testing programme could also be indicated by Nphet, with senior Government figures now questioning the justification for testing everyone with mild symptoms.

Instead, as part of the unwinding of the testing regime, people would only be tested if requested by a doctor caring for them or as part of a surveillance system to monitor incidence of the disease.

Dr Holohan and public health officials briefed senior civil servants and advisers at a meeting of the Covid Oversight Group yesterday.

A source said the meeting was "positive" but Dr Holohan did not give specific details on what Nphet may recommend after it meets today.

However, the sources said they expect Nphet to recommend changing rules on masks in schools, shops and public transport to guidance rather than laws.

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