Ireland orders full national lockdown: Country faces SIX WEEKS of maximum 'Level 5' restrictions
JACK WRIGHT and ROSS IBBETSON
Ireland will be plunged into one of Europe's strictest lockdowns for six weeks from midnight on Wednesday, despite no new Covid-19 deaths being recorded in the last 24 hours.
Cabinet ministers have agreed to impose Level 5 restrictions which will force most businesses to close, prevent mass gatherings and limit free movement across the Republic until December 1.
The public will be told to stay at home, with exercise permitted within a 5km radius of their home.
Gatherings except for groups of 10 at funerals and 25 at weddings will be banned, and only essential shops will be allowed to stay open. Construction will be permitted, but pubs, restaurants and cafes will only be able to provide takeaways and deliveries.
The Irish premier said the Government was introducing Level 5 restrictions for the entire country because 'the evidence of a potentially grave situation arising in the weeks ahead was now too strong'.
Micheal Martin said schools and creches would remain open because 'we cannot and will not allow our children and young people's futures to be another victim of this disease'. He added: 'They need their education.'
He also said the Government will be supporting efforts to suppress the virus with 'enhanced financial supports' for individuals and businesses, which would include improvements to the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme.
Mr Martin added that social isolation and anxiety were very 'real issues' and therefore those living alone or parenting alone would be able to pair with another household as part of a 'support bubble'.
The Irish premier said: 'I understand, and I feel very personally and profoundly, the sense of disappointment, the feelings of loneliness, perhaps even the despair that this announcement will bring for many.'
Mr Martin added the country would not be celebrating 'the same Christmas that we have enjoyed in years past' but insisted that the holiday would offer a 'respite' if 'each of us does what is asked of us for' six weeks.
Ireland yesterday recorded 1,283 coronavirus cases, but fatalities remain low with just three deaths recorded yesterday. No new deaths were reported.
Of the new cases, 235 were in Dublin, 232 in Cork, 60 in Galway, 47 in Limerick, 47 in Kerry, and the remaining 410 cases were spread across 21 counties. As of 2pm this afternoon, 298 people with Covid-19 were in hospitals, including 34 people in intensive care units.
It comes as Wales was plunged into a two-week 'firebreak' lockdown which will see bars, restaurants and all non-essential shops close from 6pm on Friday.
During a press conference after his address, Mr Martin defended the Government's decision not to move to level 5 sooner.
He said they "weren't ready two weeks ago to go to level 5" and that he expected that the country would be dealing with Covid-19 for the "entirety of 2021".
"The Budget itself was an important set of measures that would enable us to get through this over the medium term, well beyond the next six months because I think we're going to have Covid-19 with us for the entirety of 2021," he said.
Public health officials yesterday recommended moving to Level 5 for six weeks. It was the second time in a fortnight they had advised the Government to move to the highest level of measures.
The Government did not heed the previous advice. Instead they placed the entire country into Level 3 restrictions. Currently counties Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan are at Level 4, while the rest of the country is at Level 3.
Political leaders received briefings from health officials in Dublin on Saturday about their concerns over the recent rapid spread of the virus. The Cabinet sub-committee met this morning to discuss Nphet's latest advice.
The leaders of the Government parties also met to discuss the final details of the plan ahead of the Cabinet meeting on Monday evening.
Earlier, Transport Minister Eamon Ryan indicated that any new restrictions would not be introduced immediately saying 'you don't just flick a switch'.
Asked about a timeline for introducing new measures as he arrived for a sub-Cabinet meeting on Monday, he said: 'We'll decide that.
'I think one of the lessons previously is you don't just flick a switch, you have to give people a wee bit of notice. But Cabinet will have to decide that.'
Green Party leader Mr Ryan said he hoped the decisions reached would give clarity to the public.
He said: 'I hope there can be because that's the important part of it. The Tanaiste put it right the other day, you need a series of indicators, but that will be for Cabinet to decide. '
He also defended the length of time Government has taken to act on Nphet's advice to move to level five restrictions for six weeks, which were delivered to Health Minster Stephen Donnelly on Thursday.
'I think it's getting things right. It's complicated, there's a huge amount of implications for people's everyday lives.
'I think it's appropriate that we try and get the arrangements and the details right in that time.'
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said that social supports must be put in place.
She also called for the cuts to the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) to be fully restored.
Ms McDonald told RTE's Morning Ireland that changes to the restrictions must be 'balanced' and clearly communicated because people were going to 'really struggle' and would be 'worried sick' by any new restrictions.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) and Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan last week urged the government to bring in the Level 5 restrictions for a six week period.
Counties Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan are at Level 4, while the rest of the country is at Level 3.
On Sunday, it was reported that a new lockdown would last for four weeks, but it has since emerged that ministers are being asked to back six weeks.
Gaelic games, horse and greyhound racing are still permitted behind closed doors, under the Level 5 rules.
Non-contact sports training for children and young people can continue outdoors but only in pods of 15. Funerals will be limited to 10 people.
It comes as Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said that everyone in Wales will be ordered to 'stay at home' unless they are critical workers or are unable to work from home.
The Labour chief warned failure to act now would mean 'more people will die' as he said households will be banned from mixing indoors and outdoors while exercise outside will be allowed but it must 'begin and end at home'.
Primary schools will reopen after half-term next week but secondaries will only reopen years seven and eight, and for pupils doing exams.
The decision to impose a 'short and deep' lockdown until November 9, which echoes national demands made by Sir Keir Starmer and wipes out Halloween and Bonfire Night, has sparked a furious political backlash after statistics suggested Wales has a lower coronavirus infection rate than England.
The 'firebreak' step was criticised by Welsh Tories, who said it was dooming Wales to an endless cycle of two-week lockdowns while Conservative MPs in Westminster said it was a 'blunt instrument' and 'closing down the whole of Wales is disproportionate to the level of risk in some parts of the country'.
They also lashed out at Mr Drakeford, accusing him of 'small man syndrome', with one MP telling MailOnline: 'You have got somebody who is the head of what is essentially smaller than the West Midlands but where they have got a mayor, Wales has a first minister.
'He is trying to show he is an equal to Boris Johnson. He wants to be regarded as his equal but he is not.'
However, the move has heaped pressure on Mr Johnson who has been desperately resisting the option in England despite backing from his own SAGE experts.
Meanwhile, ministers are threatening to force Greater Manchester into Tier 3 lockdown at 12pm today unless local leaders agree to impose the economy-wrecking restrictions themselves.
Up to 10 million people now face living under the toughest measures after talks on whether the region should enter the 'very high risk' Tier 3 ended in deadlock again yesterday.
No10 has tried bouncing Andy Burnham into accepting curbs which would crash Manchester's economy by warning that the region's intensive care beds could be overrun by mid-November.
So far only Merseyside and Lancashire are in Tier 3, which requires the closure of pubs and other venues that public health officials claim contribute most to the spread of Covid-19.
A further 5.3 million in Scotland and Northern Ireland are already under even more draconian restrictions, while 3.1 million in Wales will be placed under full lockdown from Friday night.
Mr Burnham, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, earlier said that they still wanted agreement on a financial support package before agreeing to go into the highest restrictions.
But in a statement released tonight, Robert Jenrick said that he had written to local leaders giving them until midday to reach an agreement on the introduction of Tier 3 curbs.
The Communities Secretary blamed Mr Burnham for the 'deteriorating public health situation in Greater Manchester' and warned the Government would 'take action urgently'.
But the Manchester Mayor hit back tonight, blasting Health Secretary Matt Hancock's dubious use of 'selective statistics' to spread fear and panic 'about the NHS in Greater Manchester'.
It followed a warning from a Government spokesman that the entire intensive care capacity in Greater Manchester could be filled with Covid-19 patients by November 12 unless action was taken.
However the two leaders insisted the region's intensive care occupancy rate was not abnormal for this time of year, adding: 'We are not complacent about the position in our hospitals and are monitoring the situation closely.'
Labour MP Lucy Powell also blasted the Government's panic tactics, calling attempts to 'spin hospital data' as 'counter-productive and unhelpful' and causing 'a great deal of anxiety'.
Mr Jenrick said: 'There are now more Covid-19 patients in Greater Manchester Hospitals than in the whole of the South West and South East combined. But, unfortunately, despite recognising the gravity of the situation, local leaders have been so far unwilling to take the action that is required to get this situation under control.
'I have written to local leaders this evening to make clear that if we cannot reach agreement by midday tomorrow then I must advise the Prime Minister that despite our best endeavours we've been unable to reach agreement. It's not too late for local leaders to work with us to take action for the sake of the people of Greater Manchester.'