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Taoiseach dismisses 'circuit-breaker' lockdown as teachers call for contact tracing

Micheál Martin’s comments came after WHO Covid envoy Dr David Nabarro said Ireland may need local lockdowns if cases continue to rise

Taoiseach Micheál Martin

Senan Molony

The Taoiseach has dampened any ideas of a “circuit-breaker” or any other new restrictions because of Covid-19 amid concern as cases rise among schoolchildren.

And despite a warning from a World Health Organisation chief that Ireland may need local lockdowns if infections keep rising, and questions whether extra-curricular and social activities for children should be curtailed, Micheál Martin indicated matters would stay as they are for now.

This afternoon, a primary teachers’ union also called for contact tracing and testing of close contacts to resume in primary schools, after deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said children activities should be cut down.

In a statement, John Boyle, the chief executive of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said the INTO was concerned that the number of primary children testing positive has increased by nearly 50pc since the beginning of October.

"We believe that the decision to end contact tracing and testing in schools was premature and we reiterate our call that public health should recommence testing, tracing and risk assessments in primary schools,” Mr Boyle said.

"We welcome the Deputy CMO’s calls to discourage congregation of children (in uncontrolled settings) within the community. We believe that school-support measures need to be augmented and that school-related activities should continue to be restricted between Halloween and Christmas.”

Mr Boyle also raised the difficulty in securing substitute teachers to cover absences, and said it expected to meet with the Department of Education, public health officials and others on the issue next week and throughout the school year.

Today, the Taoiseach insisted there would not be an extended mid-term break, and the Government is intent on “keeping the schools open,” he said, despite evidence of an increase in infection among children at primary level in particular. “No consideration” was being given to more days off for pupils, he said, answering media questions at UCD.

On Wednesday, Dr David Nabarro, the UN’s special envoy on Covid, expressed concern as our seven-day moving average had trebled to more than 2,000 cases in three weeks, and said local restrictions could be needed if the trend continues, but not a countrywide lockdown.

“If there is a big spike in cases, and a very heavy burden on the health services in a particular location, that's when some kind of localised movement restriction can be considered, and I don't see that as something to be worried about, I see that as the correct response to a surge in Covid cases,” Dr Nabarro told Newstalk.

Asked today if he could guarantee a “meaningful Christmas”, a phrase he used last year, the Taoiseach told there were no guarantees with Covid and he could offer none. Nothing was being ruled out.

The Government “has always taken public health advice,” he added, noting that the European Medicines Agency has not yet come forward with advice on the matter.

It was a similar case with calls for booster shots to be offered immediately to frontline healthcare staff as hospitals dread being overwhelmed this winter. A recommendation had been sought from the National Immunisation Advisory Council (Niac), and was awaited, he said.

On the spike in five to 12 year olds, Mr Martin said the information from Nphet was that “a lot of the transmission was in the community”. It was not a “slam-dunk” conclusion that transmission was happening within schools. “Nphet have always been consistent in saying schools are paramount in our society, and we have always taken public health advice,” he added, ruling out any closure moves or extended breaks.

The Government had not received any specific advice in relation to the recent upsurge, but it would echo the Nphet appeal for people to return to the basics of hand-washing, social-distancing and the wearing of face coverings, he said, while anyone not fully vaccinated was being encouraged to achieve that status.

He added: “We have received no advice in relation to children’s indoor sports. And I think that, by the nature of our weather, you are going to get far more [children’s] indoor sports in the coming weeks.

“I would be concerned about the metal wellbeing of children. It is very important. We have concerns about how the whole Covid situation is adding to their anxieties.”

Mr Martin said the booster vaccination programme for older people was going ahead and would open for the over-60s next week. It remained Government advice to people to take the jab, he said, after being asked about low uptake rates among Eastern European workers in Ireland. He said he understood certain demographic cohorts have reservations for particular reasons, some cultural and some historical.

But he emphasised that there was now no difficulty with vaccine supplies. Ireland has a full stock, and the situation today – because of the extraordinary willingness of the Irish people to received the vaccine – was far better than it was a year ago.

The Taoiseach also insisted no one is being treated like ‘dirt’ in the reopening of Irish society and commerce in the pandemic.

He rejected a complaint last week from the chairman of the Licensed Vintners Association, Noel Anderson, who said that they had had two years of being treated like dirt, using a cruder word than ‘dirt’.

The LVA leader had been complaining about changes being announced by Culture Minister Catherine Martin before a delayed meeting with the sector had begun. And the comment came before the announcement the next day that advance-purchase tickets would be needed to enter nightclubs.

The Taoiseach three times avoided commenting on alleged bungling over nightclub reopening in particular -- and failed to answer whether he had taken the matter up with Minister Martin.

The Government is due to publish regulations today that will make it clear that tickets will have to be purchased electronically an hour before attending nightclubs this weekend. The sector has dismissed the rules as unworkable and likely to contribute to the continuation of the huge queues seen last weekend.

Mr Martin said people should moderate their language in airing criticisms.

The Government has been extremely supportive of the industry, and a lot of people within it had said that to him, the Taoiseach said. “We need balance here,” he said.

“Public health matters, and the protection of lives matters. We've always worked with industry to work out issues and we continue to do that.

“But it has to be balanced in terms of the commentary. And I think there have been over-the-top comments made in respect of what has actually been a reopening of the sector. That was always going to be challenging.

“But the problem for the sector is not Government, it's Covid. It’s been Covid-19 from beginning to end, particularly in the hospitality sector.”

Mr Martin said however that he “understands the frustrations and the anger, of course – if you’re in business, you want to open your business, with the people you have. But right throughout the pandemic our objective has been to keep businesses intact, through the various supports such as EWSS. We need to try and ease economic pressures on the sector. And that's what we said yesterday.”

The Taoiseach resisted commenting on Ms Martin, a Green Party Minister, and refused to say whether he had discussed the matter with her.

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