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lockdown latest Tight Covid-19 restrictions until May as fears over fourth wave grow

Increase to 5km travel limit is expected but fresh doubts emerge over return of construction sector


Members of the National Ambulance Service working at a walk-in test centre at Grangegorman Primary Care Centre in Dublin last week. Picture by Brian Lawless

Members of the National Ambulance Service working at a walk-in test centre at Grangegorman Primary Care Centre in Dublin last week. Picture by Brian Lawless

Members of the National Ambulance Service working at a walk-in test centre at Grangegorman Primary Care Centre in Dublin last week. Picture by Brian Lawless

The country is set to remain under tight public health restrictions throughout April and much of May amid growing concerns a fourth wave of Covid-19 could be on the way.

Ministers expect to be able to sanction a minor easing of restrictions from April 5 - including lifting the 5km travel limit and allowing children to return to outdoor sports training - when the Cabinet meets on Tuesday.

But any further easing of measures will be subject to deliberations between Government and public health officials this weekend and tomorrow when Nphet and the Cabinet Covid sub-committee meet separately ahead of Tuesday's Cabinet meeting.

Senior government figures last night warned of the real risk of a fourth wave of the pandemic in April and May, with the reproductive rate of the virus now considered to be at 1.3 and concern also about the high number of new cases in Dublin in recent days.

Among the minor changes to Level 5 restrictions that are envisaged from next month are that two households may be allowed to meet outdoors in public spaces, with ministers privately acknowledging this is already happening under current restrictions.

Children will likely be allowed to return to outdoor sports training given they are already taking part at school. Other outdoor sports like golf and tennis may be allowed from next month and a return of click-and-collect services will also be examined by ministers.

But there is fresh doubt over whether the construction sector will be allowed to reopen - even partially to allow for work on private homes - amid concerns this could have an impact on the Government's commitment to allow all secondary students to return to school on April 12.

A senior government source acknowledged last night that although no final decision has been made, the Taoiseach could be able to announce a broad outline of what may be possible in May and June in terms of the reopening of non-essential retail and then the hospitality industry for outdoors.

But there are unlikely to be firm commitments or dates given to the public. There is a debate in Government this weekend as to whether a review of the revised restrictions to be announced on Tuesday will be carried out again at the end of April or the middle of May.

Some ministers favour a review in four weeks, while others in Government believe it should be six weeks before any further relaxation is considered.

Reopening the retail and hospitality sectors will be contingent on the most vulnerable, including all over-70s, being vaccinated, which the Government expects will be mid-to-late May, as well as no new variants of concern emerging or spreading widely in the community.

"There is an obligation on the Government to try and indicate what May and June might look like with the vaccine roll-out. At some point, we have to link vaccine roll-out to the roadmap," a Cabinet source said.

But a second senior government source cautioned that internal modelling has shown that while vaccinating all over-70s dramatically reduces death, it cuts ICU admissions by only around 10pc. "[The] risk of hospitals being overwhelmed remains," they said. "Anything we do should be careful, cautious, phased."

In the short term, the Government is anxious to ease the 5km limit on all non-essential travel, with a new limit of between 10km and 15km from April 5 considered likely.

The prospect of people being able to travel around their home county, which some ministers have argued for, is thought to have diminished in recent days. "Nphet will look at that and go 'what's the bare minimum necessary to give people a bit of hope and optimism while not really changing anything'. I think it could be 10km," a government source said.

While work on social housing projects and some other construction considered essential has been allowed to continue, some ministers are anxious to allow work on private homes to resume from early next month.

One minister said they had received representations from dozens of constituents who are paying for rental accommodation on top of a mortgage for a property that was being built or refurbished before the lockdown.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there is some disagreement on construction," a senior Cabinet source said.

"Nphet recognises we have to give the general public something back in relation to outdoor activists, but they might be a bit less willing in commercial activity space."

Housing Minister Darragh O'Brien has argued for the phased return of the construction sector, but there are fears across Government the extra mobility this would bring could impinge on schools reopening fully after the Easter break.

Fine Gael junior housing minister Peter Burke said: "It is a priority to get residential construction open in a safe manner to ensure supply of new homes increases. However, it's dependent on public heath data and advice.

"I also believe it's critical that we signal to the commercial sector an indicative date pending key public health metrics going the right way for reopening to provide certainty for the sector."

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