MOST STUDENTS will not be returning to school until at least the end of January in order to slow the spread of coronavirus, the Taoiseach has confirmed today.
As Ireland experiences a huge spike in infections and hospitalisations, further restrictions had been expected to be announced: now, the Cabinet has confirmed a number of new measures, including the closure of schools and the construction industry.
From Monday until at least the end of January, all primary, secondary and third-level education institutions will move to online learning, with some exceptions made for special schools or for the children of essential workers.
Leaving Certificate students will have in-school learning for three days of the week from 11 January on a staggered basis, with schools remaining open for those students only.
All ECCE and preschools will close, with créches open only for vulnerable children and for those whose parents are essential workers.
All non-essential construction projects will stop at 6pm on Friday evening, and from then only construction deemed essential-- such as for health projects and social housing-- will be allowed to continue.
As for travel, the Cabinet had already confirmed that a negative Covid-19 test will be required when arriving into Ireland from abroad. This has now been confirmed, and is set to come into effect on Saturday for the UK and South Africa, and other countries at a later date.
The 5km travel limit will remain in place, and click-and-collect for non-essential retail has been banned, with only delivery services available. Everyone is asked to remain at home unless absolutely necessary, such as for food shopping or caring for a family member, and employers are urged to allow employees to work from home where at all possible.
Speaking at a Government media briefing today, Taoiseach Micheal Martin acknowledged that "People have been asked to give up so much for so long that we risk losing sight of why we are doing this," but said the ongoing disaster is wreaking havoc on the health service and these new restrictions are unfortunately vital in defeating the virus.
"We simply have to suppress this surge and flatten the curve once again," he said, stating "You simply must stay at home."
He reiterated that schools are a "safe environment", but the sheer volume of infections means the chance of infection is too high. Leaving Certificate and special education students have been deemed "essential", which is why they will be allowed to attend in-person learning.
The Taoiseach warned that "We may now be entering the most challenging phase of all. Personal responsibility and behaviour are the only way to get through it."
The decision comes after a further 5,325 cases and 17 deaths were announced by the HPSC yesterday evening.
The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 has now surpassed the peak of the first wave back in April, with 921 people hospitalised as of this morning, and 75 being treated in Intensive Care Units.
It is unclear for how long this newest lockdown will last, but Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, speaking yesterday, said "we can turn this around quickly if we stick to the measures we know worked last spring."
Taoiseach Micheál Martin stated yesterday that an estimated 135,000 people in Ireland will be vaccinated against the virus by the end of next month, and this number is expected to rise once more vaccines are available-- such as the Moderna vaccine which was approved by the EU regulator today.