Politics

New Covid restrictions unveiled amid tensions between Ministers and health officials


The Government has been forced into its most wide-ranging introduction of new restrictions this year after “stark” warnings to take immediate action in the face of the threat from the Omicron variant.

The measures were confirmed after tensions re-emerged between the Coalition and its public health advisers during testy exchanges earlier in the day.

With the hospital system under ongoing pressure and high case numbers, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) had warned while it was “impossible to quantify the level of risk” from Omicron, this may become clear only “when it may be too late to take mitigating measures”.

Saying he shared the “frustration” of the public, Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced a range of restrictions on hospitality and associated financial supports.

From Tuesday until at least January 9th, indoor hospitality will be limited to parties of six adults, while nightclubs will be closed and indoor events limited to half a venue’s capacity. Advice has been issued that households should not host more than three other households in their home, while the use of the vaccine pass is to be extended to gyms and hotel bars and restaurants.





Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU


528


110

With new Nphet modelling showing the Omicron variant could cause 6,000-15,000 cases a day in January depending on its severity and if it becomes dominant, the Taoiseach said advice from chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan was “exceptionally clear” that the risk of proceeding without further restrictions was “just too high”.

It followed a hastily arranged meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid, attended by senior officials from Nphet on Friday to discuss its advice.

During the meeting, which one source described as “very tense”, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was among several Ministers expressing frustrations. The Fine Gael leader was said to have been “very critical” of the public health team, saying he felt their media appearances were making it difficult to communicate about the pandemic.

Minister for Arts Catherine Martin spoke of the impact of restrictions on sectors concerned, while Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe complained he was hearing of restrictions piecemeal while dealing with Government business in the Dáil.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee also had firm words for Nphet.

The issue of communications was also raised at a subsequent Cabinet meeting, where Ministers took a formal decision that all communications on Covid were now to be managed by and done through the Government Information Service, which would apply to civil servants and members of advisory bodies.

Several well-placed sources said the intervention was seen as a direct response to disquiet among some senior Coalition figures over Nphet’s media strategy.

Financial supports

Announcing the restrictions on Friday, the Government reopened applications for the Pandemic Unemployment Payment for people from impacted sectors, and a targeted version of the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme for the hospitality sector. Businesses such as restaurants and theatres will be able to access the scheme despite not being fully closed. A commercial rates waiver for the first three months of 2022 will be introduced for the hospitality and entertainment sector. An extra €25 million will be made available to support the live entertainment sector. The cuts to the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme were not reversed, however.

Meanwhile, travellers arriving from Sunday onwards will have to produce clear antigen tests (for vaccinated or recently recovered passengers) taken within 48 hours of arrival. For unvaccinated flyers, a PCR test within 72 hours of arrival is required.




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