Any reintroduction of severe Covid-19 restrictions would “trigger” a review of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) scheme, which would likely have to be reopened for people laid off, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.
The Government would seek to “avoid imposing extreme restrictions if we can” over the coming weeks, the Fine Gael leader said.
Mr Varadkar said a memo on plans to subsidise the price of antigen tests down to €2-€3 per test could be ready to go to Cabinet towards the end of this week.
“We’re working with the pharmacies and also the supermarkets and retailers on that. We could have a memo by the end of the week, it could be next Tuesday, but I think it will be this week or next,” he said.
Speaking on Tuesday evening, Mr Varadkar said there were some indications the positivity rate of Covid-19 tests and the number of new infections was “starting to level off,” but it was too early to say for sure.
The increasing number of people in intensive care units remained the “real pinch point” at present, with politicians and health officials “very concerned” about the situation, he said.
The Government would have to consider reopening the PUP scheme and review the Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme, in a situation where the country returned to strict restrictions, he said.
“We don’t have any plans at the moment to make any changes to the Wage Subsidy Scheme or the Pandemic Unemployment Payment,” Mr Varadkar said.
“Things would only change if we were in a position where we had to reimpose further restrictions. Say for example if we had to bring in capacity limits or say to certain industries that they had to close,” he said.
“We couldn’t say to people, many of whom would be being laid off for the second or third time, that all of a sudden you don’t need income support, you’d have to respond to that and we will,” he said.
Mr Varadkar said the country was “not at that point by any means at the moment,” but any move back to major restrictions would be “the trigger point” where Covid supports were reviewed.
“I don’t want to create the impression we’re planning to reimpose severe restrictions over the next couple of weeks, because we’re not, but nor can we rule it out,” he said.
Mr Varadkar also said the future definition of who was deemed fully vaccinated may change from those with two doses to three doses. “The evidence from Israel and America and other places is starting to indicate fully vaccinated is three doses rather than two,” he said.
The Government would continue to “review” the emerging evidence, and any changes to Covid cert requirements would only follow everyone being offered booster shots, he said.
“People don’t need to be worried that they’re going to wake up one morning and hear on the news that all of a sudden their Covid pass doesn’t work as they’ve only had two doses,” he said.
It was likely to be “well into the New Year” before “we have everybody covered that we want covered” with booster vaccines, he said.
Mr Varadkar was speaking to reporters at the opening of a new exhibition on the Anglo Irish Treaty in the National Museum of Ireland, in collaboration with the Hugh Lane Gallery.