I want to talk to you about where we are in the management of Covid-19 and how we safely and successfully chart a path out of restrictions in the weeks and months ahead.
A lot has been asked of everyone. We have lived under very strict Level 5 restrictions now since Christmas.
It has been, and continues to be, exceptionally difficult.
Sometimes, the challenge of living with these restrictions obscures their purpose.
But we should never forget that by accepting the restrictions on all of our lives, we have saved lives.
The disease we are dealing with now is a very different beast to that which we were facing at the beginning of the first lockdown in Ireland more than 54 weeks ago.
The so-called UK or B-117 variant is essentially a new virus. It is more transmissible and it is significantly more dangerous.
The reality of the B-117 variant is that if it is given any space at all, it spreads very quickly and the consequences are terrible.
All across Europe now, it is causing very seriously difficulties in yet another surge.
Health services are at crisis point, and countries and regions are reintroducing severe restrictions.
We can avoid this if we move forward sensibly and safely.
That is what we are going to do.
Because of the success in reducing case numbers, we are now in a position to review the 5km travel limit for people. From 12th April, that limit will no longer apply, and people may travel within their county for exercise and recreation.
From 12th April, two households will be able to meet outdoors for social and recreational purposes.
We can also plan for a phased return of the construction industry: from 12th April, those involved in the construction of housing and childcare facilities may return to work. This will involve around 14,000 workers and we believe it is absolutely necessary in terms of dealing with the housing crisis and improving the country’s childcare sector.
From 19th April, some additional high performance training will be permitted, including senior inter-county GAA training to facilitate National League competition, starting in May; as well as training for certain high performing athletes approved by Sport Ireland in a range of other sports.
From April 26th, outdoor sports training for Under 18s can begin again, golf and outdoor tennis can be played, and we will be able to access outdoor visitor attractions like zoos and wildlife parks.
From 26th April, the number of mourners able to attend a funeral will increase to 25.
Two people who have been fully vaccinated, can meet again,indoors and outdoors, allowing our oldest citizens, who have had a particularly difficult year, to reconnect.
Each time that I’ve stood here and talked to you about the pandemic and what we must do to protect ourselves and our society, I’ve had to talk about the path out of the pandemic in the future tense.
Vaccines were always something that we were looking forward to.
That is no longer the case. Thanks to the truly historic effort of the world’s best scientific minds, we now have a range of brilliantly effective, and safe vaccines, little more than a year after this terrible virus began killing people.
In Europe, we now have four separate types of Covid vaccines approved for use and it is increasingly clear from all around the world that each one of them has a remarkable impact, in terms of preventing serious illness and death.
We have evidence here in Ireland, from the reduced infections in our vulnerable population and our healthcare workers who have already been vaccinated.
The public health advice is clear: vaccination will radically reduce mortality when those over 70 and the medically vulnerable are fully protected.
It will then further reduce infections, hospitalisation and mortality as younger age groups are vaccinated.
These vaccines are transformative.
And they are our way out.
Every effort has been made to ensure that almost all doses are injected into people in the same week that they arrive, but disruptions to supply – to Ireland and throughout Europe – have held us back.
Indeed, the only thing that is holding us back is supply.
The very good news is that supply is set to dramatically increase in April, May and June, but it is important also to take a moment to explain to you what has been achieved up to this point.
As I speak to you now, more than 800,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered. That means that we have administered the first vaccination to those over 80, to frontline healthcare workers, and we are making good progress with the most medically vulnerable.
This has allowed us to move to the next phase and begin vaccinating people over 65, and people with underlying medical conditions.
By the middle of April, all over 70s will have had their first dose, and mid to late May all over 70s will be fully vaccinated.
So, the truth is that despite the difficulties with international supply, our National Vaccination Programme is well underway.
I expect that by the end of next week, we will have administered close to 1 million doses.
After that, our plan is to pick up the pace even further:
Close to 3 million doses will be administered by the end of May.
Nearly 5 million doses by early July.
6 million doses by the end of July.
What does this mean for us in real terms?
Well, towards the end of April, we will examine the situation and in the month of May we will look at a phased reopening of non-essential retail, personal services, all non-contact sports training, religious services, museums, galleries and libraries, and additional freedoms for those who are fully vaccinated.
Towards the end of May, and depending on progress, we will look at the reopening of hotels, B&Bs and guesthouses in the month of June.
July and August will see more intensive vaccination and the vast majority of the population will have significant protection against the virus allowing for significant opportunities to re-open even further.
By being safe now, while significantly ramping up the vaccination programme, we will enjoy much greater freedom later in the summer.
Easter is a time for reflection and it is a time of renewal.
This year, we will not be able to mark or celebrate Easter in the manner we would like, but we can and we should take the time to reflect on the sacrifices that we’ve all made over the past year.
We can and we should take time this Easter to look forward with hope.
Less than 2 weeks from now, all of our children will be back at school.
In 4 weeks, many of our outdoor sporting facilities will be open again.
In over 7 weeks everyone over 70 will have been fully vaccinated.
We are on the final stretch of this terrible journey.
This Summer, our businesses and our public services will safely reopen.
We will finally be meeting and enjoying the company of friends and family once again.
We will be able to travel within and enjoy our beautiful country again.
Jobs and livelihoods will be restored.
And most importantly, the worst of this awful pandemic, will be behind us.
Steadily, and safely, let’s get through this final phase together.