Taoiseach says country needs to ‘smile and sing again’ as two-year Covid nightmare nears end

The mood of the nation has been lifted after almost two years of tough pandemic restrictions as the Taoiseach last night removed the majority of Covid curbs and said the country needed to “smile and sing again”.

ocial distancing has been scrapped from 6am today and pubs, restaurants and nightclubs will be able to operate as normal without Covid passes or curfews.

Stadia are set to fill up with fans for full-capacity attendance for the GAA National Football and Hurling Leagues and Six Nations matches.

Micheál Martin also confirmed the return of handshakes and a phased return to the office, while masks will remain a requirement and Covid certs will still be needed for European travel.

The Taoiseach thanked the country for its resilience and said: “Today is a good day”.

“Spring is coming and I don’t know if I’ve ever looked forward to one as much as I’m looking forward to this one,” Mr Martin said.

“Humans are social beings and we Irish are more social than most. As we look forward to this spring, we need to see each other again. We need to see each other smile, we need to sing again.”

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said that there was no longer public health rationale for any restrictions. However, isolation advice for confirmed cases and close contacts will remain in place.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar admitted it had been a “very long” two years and that the pandemic had been a “tragedy” to our nation, before adding that it would be the “spring and summer of freedom”.

The heads of Government warned that the pandemic was not over, but Mr Varadkar said he was not “predicting” new restrictions in the next year.

“Immunity will wane – it always does. There will be more variants of concern and there will be another winter so you could envisage a scenario whereby we have a sixth, seventh, eight, ninth, tenth wave, I don’t know, we just can’t say at the moment how mild or severe that might be. What we’re going to do over the next couple of weeks as a government is plan for that,” he said.

Mr Martin said there may be “further twists” in the pandemic and all safety measures in schools would remain until the end of February.

He added that the “emergency” which required strict restrictions was now over.

“I think we’re into a new phase of the pandemic, which is the phase that the type of restrictions that we’ve imposed in the previous phases is no longer required.

“The emergency is over in terms of those restrictions, but the pandemic isn’t,” he said.

Mr Martin maintained he did not regret imposing the 8pm curfew before Christmas.

“We’re not giving anybody permission to get Covid but the essential point we’re making is that when the public health rationale exists no longer for restrictions for personal freedoms, Government has an obligation to act,” he said.

He said the 8pm curfew was put in place when the Government was not fully aware of the “potential impact” that the Omicron variant would have on hospitals and death rates.

Mr Varadkar said the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) would now consider the requirement for a fourth dose of the vaccine.

Arts Minister Catherine Martin admitted that despite nightclubs having the green light to reopen from tonight, this may be delayed until Wednesday for some clubs due to licensing requirements which will have to be signed off by a court first due to the requirement of 48 hours’ notice.

Ms Martin also confirmed that St Patrick’s Day parades will be back this year.

The reduced Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS), which was due to kick in from February 1, will be delayed by a month for businesses directly impacted by restrictions introduced last December.

A restart payment of one week’s support will be paid as part of the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS) to help businesses to reopen, and nightclubs and other venues with late licences will have their fees waived until April 30.

The Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) will close for new applications from today and anyone still on the PUP will receive €208 per week from March 8.

PUP recipients will then receive Jobseeker’s Allowance from April 5. Enhanced illness benefit will be extended until the end of June.

Mr Martin said the hardest part of the pandemic for him was last January. “I think the Alpha variant and its impact on our hospitals, ICUs and on mortality, for me, I would describe that as the toughest part because that was very severe. We came through it but at a cost,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said that each day in January 2021 the hospital numbers were “soaring”.

“You could just every day see the number of cases, people in hospital, people in ICU, soaring, people having to be ventilated outside of ICU, which is a position you never want to be in,” he said. “Knowing at that point that we acted too late, that the horse had already bolted at that stage, for me that was definitely the worst part.”

Meanwhile, Mr Martin acknowledged that those in vulnerable cohorts may be anxious about the return to normality. “For those who do feel like that, I’d ask you to be open about it, share it. We all need to be open with each other, be supportive of each other, mind each other,” he said.

On a lighter note, the Taoiseach told journalists that he will have a pint today as he heads to Killarney, and is looking forward to not having to look “over my shoulder”.

What restrictions have been ditched and what’s left…

From 6am today, the following restrictions have been removed:

  • Limits on household visits
  • 8pm closing time for hospitality and events
  • Physical distancing requirements in hospitality (table service, 1m between tables, 6 per table)
  • Covid pass requirement across all domestic venues/activities
  • Requirement for pubs/restaurants to maintain contact details
  • Capacity restrictions for outdoor events, including sporting fixtures
  • Capacity restrictions for indoor events, including weddings.
  • Restrictions on nightclubs

From Monday (January 24):

  • Return to physical attendance in workplaces can commence on a phased basis appropriate to each sector.
  • Measures remaining in place until February 28:
  • Requirements for mask-wearing on public transport and retail environments.
  • Protective measures in schools and early-learning and care facilities.

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