As a nation, together, we have made an extraordinary effort over the course of the last four months in response to the spread of COVID-19.
Our society, our economy, our relationships, our public finances, in fact every aspect of our lives have come under extraordinary pressure as we have worked together in response to this unprecedented threat.
When they did this, with the full support of all political groupings in the country, they made it clear that each phase and the indicative date for the start of each phase would be kept under constant review.
In the time since that plan was set out and as we made progress through it, we have seen some very positive changes in our country:
people have been able to re-establish physical contact with friends and loved ones
we are able once again to enjoy the beautiful sights and attractions available to us all across our country
a range of small businesses have been able to tentatively reopen and work to re-establish themselves
we are able to go out and enjoy a pint and a meal again
But one thing hasn’t changed.
This virus hasn’t changed.
It remains as indiscriminate in its cruelty as it has been since it arrived. And it remains as relentless as ever in its effort to find new hosts so it can continue to spread.
My government and I have received very sobering advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team. The concern about the rise in the number of cases over recent weeks is very real.
The R number, which we have all become familiar with, has now risen above ‘1’ in this country.
And the international situation, with almost a million and a half cases reported in just the last week, represents a growing worry.
Taking these factors into consideration, today the Cabinet agreed that the current public health measures should remain in place until 10 August. We have agreed that the country will now NOT be progressing to Phase 4 of the Revised Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business.
The priority now must be to get that R number back below ‘1’. By doing so we will give ourselves the best chance possible to fully reopen our schools in late August.
It is also a critical step in the process of making sure that essential non-COVID healthcare continues as quickly as possible.
With this goal in mind, I would now like to set out five steps that the government has decided we must now take to further protect public health.
The government agreed today that face coverings should be worn by all customers in shops and shopping centres across the country. Retail staff will also be required to wear a face covering unless there is a partition between them and members of the public or where there is a distance of 2 metres between them and members of the public. Regulations, with details on enforcement and penalties are in the process of being drafted.
Pubs, bars and nightclubs
Given the risk of the spread of infection associated with social gatherings, as well as the evidence of outbreaks from bars and pubs in other countries, pubs, bars, hotel bars, nightclubs and casinos will remain closed until 10 August.
Pubs and bars, which are currently operating while serving food, can remain open once they are fully compliant with the public health guidance.
There is evidence that unrestricted house parties have led to a rise in recent outbreaks of the virus. It is now recommended that social visits to people’s homes will now be limited to a maximum of 10 visitors – from no more than 4 other households.
The current restrictions of 50 people at indoor gatherings and 200 people at outdoor gatherings is being extended until 10 August.
Foreign travel and the Green List
We are continuing to advise against all non-essential foreign travel. The global situation is deteriorating and there are growing concerns about re-emergence of the virus in Ireland as a result of overseas travel.
I and all my colleagues have had a lot of correspondence on this matter and we are very acutely aware of the anxiety across the country at the prospect of visitors from virus hotspots travelling freely within the country. In response to these very valid concerns, a number of further actions will be taken.
a) The government will publish a Green List on Monday 20 July. Countries which have a similar risk of infection to Ireland will be included on this list, however I want to emphasise the fact that we will continue to urge people against unnecessary foreign travel. This list will be kept under fortnightly review.
b) There will be an increased presence of compliance staff and increased communication at our ports and airports to make incoming passengers aware of their obligation to fill out Passenger Locator Forms correctly and their requirement to restrict their movements for 14 days.
c) Work is underway to move the Passenger Locator Form information online so that passenger information is more easily accessible for follow up checks and calls by an expanded tracing team.
In support of all of these preventative measures, there will be a renewed communications campaign across all formats and targeting all age groups to ensure the maximum public awareness of these new requirements. In particular, we need to refocus the message for our young people about the positive role they can play in preventing the further spread of the virus.
I am also very conscious of, and grateful for the work that has been done to date by our print, broadcast and online media in amplifying important public health messages. I thank them for their ongoing support in this effort.
I understand how difficult the journey so far has been. All of us have had to make changes in our lives and too many of us have had to deal with the terrible grief of lives cut short.
And I know that some of the steps I am announcing this evening will come as a disappointment.
But I also know that our people are deeply resilient. I know that we care for our families, we care for our neighbours and we care for our communities and we all care deeply for our country.
I know that even though this delay in phase four of the country’s reopening will be disappointing, it will also be understood for what it is – protection of the progress we have made to date, and our best shot at further, sustainable progress in our education and health sectors in the Autumn.