Easing of Ireland’s COVID-19 restrictions: The “New Normal”

3 September 2021

On Tuesday, shortly after 6pm, Taoiseach Micheál Martin descended the steps of Government Buildings to make yet another announcement regarding the easing of Ireland’s COVID-19 restrictions – the 18th such time he has done so since ascending to the highest political office on the island. Now, the strong hope in Government is that, despite concerns over Ireland’s Delta wave and new variants, Tuesday marked the last major restrictions related announcement as Ireland slowly emerges from the emergency phase of the pandemic.

In his announcement, the Taoiseach outlined a set of gradual but significant changes. Including the return of public transport to full capacity as of the 1 September, as well as welcome changes for the live entertainment industry who will benefit from plans for increased capacity limits for indoor and outdoor events commencing 6 September, following significant lobbying of Government in recent weeks.

Of particular importance is the return to workplaces on a phased and staggered basis from 20 September with the Government’s reopening plan specifically noting that “employers should develop or finalise their long-term blended working and return to work policy and plans having regard to their operational requirements in line with public health advice”. The return-to-work provision in the reopening plan also imparts significant impetus on Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment Leo Varadkar to make further ground on his Department’s National Remote Work Strategy. In August, upon the publication of a report detailing results from the public consultation process, Varadkar noted that “we have a real opportunity to make remote and blended working a much bigger part of normal working life”. The challenge for the coming months and years will be to see that vision realised.

Beyond September, October will see the majority of restrictions lifted, and a “new normal” as referenced by the Tánaiste as the Government aims to lift almost all remaining restrictions by 22 October. This change in approach will see a shift from regulations and restrictions to personal responsibility. In the words of the Taoiseach “the time is now right to begin the move from regulation and widespread restrictions on people’s personal freedom, to an approach primarily defined by public health advice, personal behaviour, judgement and responsibility.” Measures that will remain in place, however, include self-isolation in the presence of COVID-19 symptoms and mask wearing in certain settings.

Furthermore, on Wednesday the Taoiseach also outlined that Ireland’s National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), which has advised Government on its response to the pandemic for the last 18 months, will be “streamlined into government structures”, signalling that NPHET will over time be wound down and its role subsumed into the general functions of the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive. The Taoiseach also indicated plans to push forward with a campaign to offer COVID-19 booster shots to immunosuppressed people, and those in nursing homes and/or over 70, subject to further advice from the NIAC, which would lead to a timeline for the offering of such booster shots.

As restrictions ease, the focus will undoubtedly shift back to the economy and the estimated €38billion economic costs of the pandemic that will carry over into next year. Speaking earlier this week, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Michael McGrath, said that the economy would require “careful management” but ruled out a return to austerity. Emphasis will also shift back to housing, building on yesterday’s publication of the Government’s €4 billion-per-year Housing for All plan. The plan – which was initially earmarked by the Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien for publication in July before being delayed to the beginning of September – is targeted toward addressing Ireland’s housing crisis by providing 300,000 new homes by 2030, while also pledging to end homelessness by the close of the decade. The success of the Housing plan will be integral to the future of the country’s three coalition parties.