Hopes are growing that rules on outdoor gatherings will be relaxed in February

Hopes are growing that restrictions on outdoor gatherings will be eased in time for next month’s big events, including Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Wales in early February.

Senior government sources said last night they hoped to give the green light to such events in the coming weeks, along with a wider easing of restrictions. It is thought the government will likely seek to put in place a gradual lifting of restrictions if the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), which meets on Thursday, is favourable.

Such an approach could mean a return in the coming weeks to a situation broadly equivalent to what was in place in November, with a longer opening of hospitality and a more widely encouraged return to work. In November, the premises were able to operate until midnight.

It is understood nightclubs will follow later, but the gap “is not expected to be extended”, a senior source said.

A meeting of coalition party leaders last night would have been optimistic.

Growing optimism is fueled by the sharp drop in the number of daily Covid-19 cases, with just 6,239 new infections confirmed yesterday. Some 1,006 people were hospitalized with Covid-19, including 97 in intensive care.

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in intensive care

Although no specific event is targeted, the first major sporting event in February is the rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and his Fine Gael counterpart Leo Varadkar are both believed to be in favor of easing restrictions, which limit outdoor events to 5,000 fans or 50% capacity, depending on the most small of both.

A bigger crowd at the Six Nations game would also likely result in a significant number of Wales fans arriving in Dublin.

If an earlier resumption of larger crowds is allowed, the GAA’s domestic league fixtures over the last weekend of January could come into play.

Government figures indicated last night that they would like to be able to provide guidance to stakeholders this week. However, with Nphet only meeting on Thursday, the Cabinet may not consider formal decisions on the amended restrictions until next week. This would make easing unlikely before the end of the month, given the need to plan and give sectors a waiting period before reopening. However, the Cabinet could still meet earlier.

Coalition sources believe the situation in state hospitals and current data on the pandemic warrant the lifting of restrictions, with growing belief that the peak of the Omicron wave has passed.

Compulsory closing at 8 p.m.

However, government sources plan to proceed until the end of January with the current set of restrictions in place, which means that hospitality will continue to operate under the mandatory 8 p.m. closing time until the end of the month. month.

Hospitality industry representatives have called for an end to early closing hours, and government backbenchers, who return to Leinster House this week after the Christmas holidays, are also expected to push for a lifting of restrictions. limitations.

One of the goals is to phase out legal restrictions, with the possible exception of mask mandates where they are a legal requirement, by the end of March.

Meanwhile, former Chair of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Science Officer for the Government, Professor Mark Ferguson, has left Nphet to complete his other duties. He was appointed last winter and also oversaw an expert panel report on the use of antigen testing.

Sara H. Byrd