DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland on Friday announced the first small steps to easing restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus and laid out a roadmap for a gradual re-opening of the economy from May 18 if the virus can be kept under control.
Ireland introduced stay-home measures almost six weeks ago, shutting down all but essential operations. Making two minor initial changes, “cocooning” over 70s can leave their homes to go for a walk or a drive from Tuesday when travel limit to exercise will be extended to 5 kilometres from 2 kilometres.
A return to something approaching economic normality will commence on May 18 with a plan to reopen the economy in five three-week stages with the final stage set for Aug 18. If the virus worsens, the economy may go back a phase, Varadkar said.
“While there is still so much that we don’t know, tonight there is hope. In the weeks ahead that hope will drive us forward as we plan to emerge safely from this crisis,” Varadkar said in a televised address, as Ireland joined other European countries in a mapping a way out of the crisis.
Outdoor work, such as construction, will resume on May 18 along with the reopening of some retailers like garden centres and hardware stores. Some sports such as tennis and golf and outdoor meetings in groups of four people will also be allowed.
Small retailers where social distancing can be observed may reopen on June 8, with a return to work for those with low levels of interaction. A reopening of restaurants where customers can be adequately spaced out is penciled in for June 29.
Hotels, minus hotel bars, can potentially open from July 20. Socially distancing pubs and nightclubs are among the last group on Aug. 10, along with a return to work across all sectors and tourist travel to offshore islands.
Schools and universities will open again in September, Varadkar said, adding that the cabinet will meet again on Saturday to agree further measures to help businesses restart.
Cases in Ireland rose to 20,833, with 1,265 deaths. While 221 new cases marked the lowest daily rise since April 1, Ireland’s chief medical officer reiterated hospital admissions were too high for restrictions to be lifted.
Adding a note of caution, the Health Minister described the plan as “a flexible menu of options.”
Unemployment rocketed to 16.5% last month from just 4.8% in February as a result of the shut down that began in mid-March and will lead to what was Europe’s fastest growing economy to shrink at least 10% this year, according to official forecasts.
Highlighting the difficulty at firms that are still open and trying to operate while implementing measures to protect workers’ health, Ireland’s agriculture minister said six clusters of two or more coronavirus cases had been confirmed at six meat plants.
Chambers Ireland, the country’s largest business group, said the plan was a “glimmer of light” but publicans said they were being treated as “second class citizens” by having to stay closed at least six weeks longer than restaurants, their representative body said.
The announcement was also broadly welcomed by other political parties.
“It’s going to be a long summer and we will have to live with this virus for quite some time,” said Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, who may take over from Varadkar during the plan if their parties can form a new government with others.
“Public health and safety and the well being of our people, particularly our over 70s, has to be uppermost in our decision making and I subscribe to that.”
Reporting by Padraic Halpin. Editing by Jane Merriman and Chizu Nomiyama