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lockdown lifting Varadkar warns of a possibility of a fourth wave while Tony Holohan 'broadly positive' about Covid situation

Nphet briefs Health Minister as Leo Varadkar faces criticism of reopening rules

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Dr Tony Holohan. Picture: Collins

Dr Tony Holohan. Picture: Collins

Dr Tony Holohan. Picture: Collins

Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan is “broadly positive” about the current situation with Covid-19 but has warned about the dangers of the so-called Indian variant and local spikes of new cases.

As Tánaiste Leo Varadkar separately raised the spectre of a fourth Covid wave at a Fine Gael party meeting this evening, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) met today to review the latest data on the virus, ahead of the Government announcing an easing of coronavirus restrictions on Friday.

After the meeting, Mr Holohan briefed Minister Stephen Donnelly on the spread of the virus.

“The minister and the Chief Medical Officer had a constructive session following Nphet meeting with the epidemiological situation viewed a steady and broadly positive with identified risks including variants and local spikes,” a source said.

Speaking in the Dáil, Mr Donnelly said he had just come from a meeting with Mr Holohan and was “very happy to report” that Nphet’s view is the “trajectory is positive”.

The Minister said this was “thanks to the Irish people getting behind the measures day after day and keeping case numbers and hospitalisation figures low”.

It is expected Nphet will clear the way for the resumption of indoor dining in early July if the rate of Covid-19 transmission remains stable and the vaccination programme continue to progress.

Nphet is also expected to recommend beginning pilot programmes for live events.

However, there are concerns Nphet will not green-light the return of international travel as soon as ministers would have hoped.

At a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting this evening, the Tánaiste warned of the possibility of a fourth wave of Covid-19 as he came under major pressure from Fine Gael colleagues to scrap mandatory hotel quarantine and “indefensible” rules for reopening hospitality next month.

Amid calls from his own party to accelerate the relaxation of public health restrictions on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar warned that the pandemic was not over and that “we’re not out of the woods yet”.

The Fine Gael leader mentioned the possibility of a fourth wave on a number of occasions at the private Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting and said the country needed to get through another winter.

Sources at the meeting said Mr Varadkar outlined how the third wave was caused by increased socialisation and a more infectious variant arriving via international travel at Christmas. He said it was “not impossible” that the country could find itself in that position again after restrictions are eased in the coming weeks.

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A succession of former Fine Gael ministers criticised the distinction between hotels, which are set to open to indoor dining on June 2, and restaurants and pubs which will only be allowed to resume outdoor dining on June 7, as well as the new 105-minute limit for people dining indoors.

TDs and senators also took aim at “draconian” restrictions on foreign travel with calls for mandatory hotel quarantine (MHQ) to be scrapped.

Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan said MHQ had to be “parked” and taken “off the pitch” to bring Ireland back into line with the rest of the EU and said the 105-minute indoor dining rule had been “plucked out of the sky”.

Former justice minister Charlie Flanagan called for MHQ to be discontinued or phased out and for restaurants and hotels to be put on the same footing. Mr Flanagan told his party that “a nut roast in a restaurant is probably the same as a nut roast in a hotel restaurant”.

Former sports minister Brendan Griffin also criticised the decision to reopen hotels to indoor dining before pubs and restaurants, saying this could lead to congregations in hotels and abuse of rules.

The Kerry TD said the 105-minute time limit on indoor dining was “counterproductive” as it could lead to people moving from venue to venue and make contact tracing more difficult. He also said current public health measures were “disproportionate” to the current risk given the success of vaccinations.

Former agriculture minister Michael Creed said the differentiation between hotels and pubs and restaurants was “entirely indefensible” and “lacked common sense”, comparing it to the now-abandoned €9 meal rule.

Another former minister, John Paul Phelan, said the ban on indoor dining was asking people to “run to the cars with their plates” if it rains and said there was a necessity for the domestic tourism industry to “level the playing field” between hotels and pubs and restaurants.

In response to the criticism, Mr Varadkar said the new Fáilte Ireland guidelines were “not the last word” and signalled they would be reviewed in the coming months as the sector reopens.

Backbenchers Joe Carey, Kieran O’Donnell and Senator Tim Lombard criticised the ongoing restrictions on the aviation industry and called for clarity. Mr Carey called for the phasing out of MHQ and the reopening of travel corridors with the UK and America.

Senator Regina Doherty criticised Coalition ministers, including Eamon Ryan, Stephen Donnelly and Michael McGrath, saying inconsistencies in messaging are “driving people mad”. Both she and Dublin Fingal TD Alan Farrell warned of further layoffs by Aer Lingus in the coming weeks without certainty for the industry.

MEP Seán Kelly said he did not understand why there were “draconian” rules on travel into Ireland given some people are fully vaccinated. He also questioned the logic of not allowing crowds at sporting events given that 10,000 people attended Premier League matches in the UK last week.

Mr Varadkar said that Fine Gael had always been on the side of allowing people to travel rather than “shutting the skies down” but said this needed to be done safely and that the Government would await the advice of public health experts.

Earlier in the meeting, Mr Varadkar said the Government would announce on Friday what restrictions would be in place in June and July and that the aim was to get back to Level 2 where the country was at last summer before restrictions were reimposed in August.

Under Level 2 restrictions, the majority of areas of economy and society - for example, schools, restaurants, pubs and gyms – are open with controlled indoor gatherings of up to 100 people allowed and 200 at outdoor gatherings.

Mr Varadkar said the vaccine portal would open to 40- to 45-year-olds in the next couple of days and that they would have the option of getting the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine.

The Tánaiste also told his party that an announcement on the future of State Covid support schemes, including the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP), would be made at next Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

While there would be no ‘cliff edge’ and there would not be a dramatic change for these payments in the third quarter, Mr Varadkar signalled that the phasing out would begin from October onwards.

Earlier, the meeting heard from Dublin Bay South by-election candidate James Geoghegan. Director of elections, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris, said the Fine Gael message on the doorsteps should be to warn of the possibility of there being two Sinn Féin TDs in the constituency and no Fine Gael representative.

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