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No lockdown Taoiseach says Government will not be reintroducing Covid-19 restrictions

'We do not want to go back, and we are not contemplating going backwards. The only issue facing us now is going forward'

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Taoiseach Micheal Martin (Julien Behal/PA)

Taoiseach Micheal Martin (Julien Behal/PA)

Taoiseach Micheal Martin (Julien Behal/PA)

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said the Government will not be reintroducing restrictions to curb the surge in Covid-19 cases which is once again putting a significant strain on hospitals and ICUs around the country.

In an exclusive Sunday Independent interview, Mr Martin said: “We do not want to go back, and we are not contemplating going backwards. The only issue facing us now is going forward.”

Ahead of a critical briefing from public health advisers Nphet tomorrow, the Government is, however, ready to pause the lifting of remaining restrictions until the latest surge is under control.

As concern grows this weekend about the rise in the rate of infection, the Government is concentrating on extending the vaccination ‘booster’ programme, and will also launch a new initiative to encourage the partially and unvaccinated to get the jab.

Yesterday there were indications that the hesitant were signing up for the vaccine with 3,500 new registrations over a three-day period.

Separately, the Sunday Independent has learned that the Government is to order a ramping up of spot-check inspections in pubs and restaurants to stem the rise of Covid.

Environmental health officers are to be told to “blitz” the hospitality sector in an attempt to stamp out a “nod and wink” culture which sources believe has developed in recent weeks in relation to the mandatory provision of Covid certificates.

Political and health authorities believe the “turning of a blind eye” on certificates has contributed to the increase in Covid cases.

However, significant doubts exist that the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), which are both charged with inspections, have the manpower to carry out the job.

In an interview, Mr Martin moved to reassure the public that restrictions would not be re-imposed despite the increase in infections.

He said: “We are not looking at the same situation as last year. We are looking at a completely different approach.”

The plan is to extend the vaccine ‘booster’ campaign to the over-60s and medically vulnerable and to launch a “new drive” to persuade 300,000 unvaccinated and 70,000 partially vaccinated to get the jab. “There is a lot of low-hanging fruit there,” a Government source said.

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The Government is awaiting the advice of National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) before deciding on its booster campaign. Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, of Nphet, who has just returned from holiday, is also awaiting Niac’s assessment.

The health authorities here will be examining data from Israel where over-12s were this month given a booster vaccine at the sharp end of a fourth wave there.

In an interview, Mr Martin cited the European Medicines Agency recommendation that over-18s can receive a booster jab: “Right now we are only administering the booster to over-80-year-olds and those who are auto-immune-supressed. But I would like to see that expanded. And to healthcare workers too.”

The recent focus on the 370,000 people who have yet to avail of a vaccine or have not received a second dose has resulted in a noticeable uptick in registration for vaccination in recent days.

According to a HSE source, there were close to 3,500 new registrations over a three-day period at the end of last week. This compares to around 2,000 to 2,500 who availed of walk-in vaccine centres last weekend. There is still evidence that younger people are more reluctant to avail of the vaccine.

No decision has been taken yet on booster shots for health care staff, most of whom were vaccinated more than six months ago.

Yesterday a prominent hospital consultant came out in support of mandatory vaccinations for frontline health care workers. Dr Catherine Motherway told the Sunday Independent it was her personal view that the vaccine should be mandated for frontline, patient facing staff. However, Mr Martin has ruled out mandatory vaccination of frontline staff: “The voluntary nature of our vaccination programme has been an outstanding success,” he said.

Significant doubts exist that the HSE and the HSA, which are both charged with inspections in the hospitality sector, have the manpower to carry out the “blitz” campaign.

Government sources believe the hospitality sector will have to “step up” Covid certificate compliance. There is a view that a ‘nod and wink’ culture has developed in pubs and restaurants, particularly in recent weeks, and this has contributed to the increase in Covid cases.

There are at least 15,000 restaurant, cafe, coffee shop, hotel and pub premises around the country.

Shortly after a range of restrictions were last lifted in July, the HSE had carried out a total of 2,212 compliance checks under new regulations by mid-August

Two-thirds were compliant and the vast bulk of the remainder were told to make minor further improvements. Only 3pc were deemed non-compliant.

The HSA, with a smaller team of 70 inspectors, carried out just 165 checks from Monday, July 26, to Friday, August 13. It found a 4pc non-compliance rate. Of the 96pc compliant, 16pc were deemed to have more to do to achieve full accordance with the regulations.

Since then, however, the authorities believe a far more relaxed policy has developed within the hospitality sector and this has contributed to the surge in cases now.

The Taoiseach views booster vaccines as an “important weapon” and “strong line of defence” ahead of Christmas. Asked if people could fly home from abroad for Christmas, he said the Government will not restrict people coming home. “We have been very clear in that regard and we have opened up again.”

On the return to work, he said companies are “staggering their return” to the office “up to Christmas and beyond” and the Government “will not interfere with that”.

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