Another Covid Christmas crisis: Restrictions on home visits, hospitality and live events in bid to counter Omicron threat

The country is facing into another Christmas of restrictions amid stubbornly high Covid figures and the threat of the Omicron variant.

he reopening of society will take a major step backwards next Tuesday when hospitality settings and live events are curtailed again. People are also being urged to plan for a smaller Christmas and limit the number of households they invite to gatherings.

A new rule permitting indoor entertainment, cultural and sporting venues to only operate at 50pc capacity is likely to lead to a string of cancelled events ahead of December and New Year festivities.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Government cannot “wish the virus away”, and the new measures were necessary due to Omicron, the return of the winter flu and increased socialising at Christmas.

The Cabinet accepted significant new restrictions on socialising proposed by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), despite shock among ministers about the measures and how they were presented.

The new rules, which come into force on Tuesday and will run until January 9, mean nightclubs will close and strict social distancing rules will return to restaurants, pubs and hotels. Hospitality businesses will only be permitted to offer table service and customers will be limited to six people per table.

The ban on booking multiple tables will return and mixing between tables will also be prohibited. Tables will have to be at least one metre apart and masks must be worn by all customers when they are moving around premises.

New guidance also asks that no more than four households gather in one house over Christmas.

However, the Government insisted the guidance was flexible and was not written in law.

Speaking at a press conference, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said: “There will be no gardaí calling to people’s homes to see how many are inside and the Government will not be telling you what you can or cannot do in your own home.”

The Government also announced live venues including sport, music and culture events will have to operate at 50pc capacity and only allow seated audiences. The move is a major blow for the entertainment sector in the lead-up to Christmas.

However, the Government also announced a range of new supports for businesses and workers affected.

These included reopening the Pandemic Unemployment Payment to anyone who loses their job due to the measures. Commercial rates will continue to be waived for the first quarter of the new year and the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS) will provide funding for businesses.

A further €25m is being allocated for the live entertainment industry on top of €25m announced in the Budget.

Meanwhile, Digital Covid Certificates will also be required for access to gyms and hotels for the first time next week. New regulations underpinning the expansion for the Covid pass regime will be drafted over the weekend.

In his letter to the Government, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan warned of the potential for between 750 and 1,300 people a day being admitted to hospital and 200 to 400 to ICUs in the worst-case scenario.

He said there could be 8,000 to 15,000 new cases a day if this were to transpire.

Dr Holohan warned deaths per day have been increasing very slowly at around seven a day or 200 deaths a month.

“This may rise further, given the very high case counts, though booster vaccination in older age groups may mitigate against this,” he said.

He said there continues to be a significant number of outbreaks in settings where vulnerable people are residents.

Dr Holohan said the overall epidemiological situation “remains concerning and delicately balanced”.

Giving his reaction last night, the owner of popular Galway venue Róisín Dubh said the latest restrictions on the hospitality sector “essentially amount to a full lockdown”.

Eoghan MacNamara told the Irish Independent he will have to cancel all planned events for the month and lay off staff a few weeks before Christmas.

“We will have to cancel all the concerts we’d planned that weren’t sold as seated shows, we have to cancel everything, basically,” he said.

“It’s a huge blow to the artists, the staff, the customers, everyone. Coming into Christmas, everyone is going to have to cut down on staff as the work isn’t there for them.

“I know we won’t be able to keep everyone on. There just isn’t enough work there for them now.”

December makes up a large part of the entertainment sector’s calendar, and Mr MacNamara said even if the restrictions are lifted in January, there is “nowhere near the same scale” of events and appetite for live gigs.

“There is no way the entertainment business is viable at 50pc capacity seated,” he said.

While the announcement on business supports and the PUP was “a help”, he said “nothing beats being open”.

Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland

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