DUBLIN — People must stop socializing in each other’s homes for several weeks under new pandemic restrictions announced Wednesday by the Irish government.
The Cabinet took action in emergency session after public health chiefs warned that the rate of COVID-19 infections was growing much faster than during the first and second waves of the disease in the country. Some measures, while immediately intended to discourage “super-spreader” parties on New Year’s Eve, could last until February pending the rollout of a national vaccination program.
Ministers decided to delay the reopening of schools by a week to January 11 and extend a ban on air flights and passenger ferries from Britain until January 6 at least.
Non-essential retail outlets that had been allowed to reopen in early December following a six-week lockdown must close once again on New Year’s Eve. People must stay within 5 kilometers of their homes and stay out of each other’s residences until the end of January at least.
Prime Minister Micheál Martin said the more virulent U.K. strain of the virus, confirmed to have arrived in Ireland on Christmas Eve, “is spreading at a rate that has surpassed the most pessimistic models available to us” and increases “the risk of our health service being overwhelmed.”
“The truth is that with the presence of the new strain and the pace of growth, this is not a time for nuance in our response. We must apply the brakes to movement and physical interaction across the country … for at least one month,” Martin said in a televised address to the nation.
The number of new confirmed cases in a single day passed 1,700 for the first time as Paul Reid, head of the Health Service Executive, warned that “an unprecedented and toxic combination” of forces — including yuletide recklessness — was spreading the disease in Ireland. He said tracers had recorded multiple cases of infected persons maintaining close contact with 20 to 30 other people over the holidays.
Ireland’s spike, common in European countries that eased restrictions in the run-up to Christmas, reflects the government’s decision to permit restaurants and food-serving pubs to reopen on December 4. They were ordered shut again on Christmas Eve as COVID-19 cases surged.
Public health officials had argued against the relaxation, correctly forecasting that people who dined and drank in social circles would fan out across Ireland in the week before Christmas to meet relatives from several households.
Reid said the nation of nearly 5 million people should cancel New Year’s gatherings and stay in their own homes.
“We’re all at extremely high risk, in all parts of the country, of becoming infected with the COVID virus. Transmission levels are at a worrying level,” Reid told a Dublin press conference. “We need everybody to take immediate and urgent reactions. Withdraw from any planned activities to meet with family for New Year. Protect yourself.”
The rate of infection is running far higher in the neighboring U.K. region of Northern Ireland, which began its own six-week lockdown the day after Christmas.
Northern Ireland authorities on Wednesday reported a further 2,143 cases, which is triple the rate of infection in the much larger Republic of Ireland. Its counties with the worst current infection rates — Donegal, Louth and Monaghan — all border Northern Ireland.