The Irish government has rejected a recommendation to return the country to a full lockdown in the first clash with health chiefs since the Covid outbreak began.
The surprise recommendation by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) late on Sunday to impose the highest of five levels of restrictions possible with immediate effect had led to sharp criticism from some of the country’s most senior politicians, including the former taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
While the rising spread of the virus is causing alarm and has led to partial lockdowns in several counties, most of the country is still on level 2 restrictions, involving fewer limits to social and economic activity.
Ministers faced opposition from politicians and business to what would have amounted to Europe’s first major second-wave national lockdown.
On Monday night, the cabinet opted to move the country to level 3 from midnight on Tuesday. This involves a ban on visits to houses by more than one other household and no more than six people, restrictions to restaurants and pubs, most of which remain open, no outdoor events, no matches or events unless elite sports and weddings restricted to 25 people.
The taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said central to discussions about moving to level 5 was looking at the wider implications for the economy.
“What happens next is in our own hands,” Martin said in a televised address, saying some businesses may not be able to recover from a disproportionate reimposition of more severe restrictions. “It’s about protecting lives and livelihoods.”
Varadkar, who is now the deputy prime minister with responsibility for jobs, went further, telling RTÉ on Monday night that NPHET’s level 5 recommendation “hadn’t been thought through and there hadn’t been prior consultation”.
His was also critical of how NPHET has acted, saying “landing something on a Sunday night … without prior consultation” was not the right way to do things.
The decision will be debated in the Dáil on Tuesday and is expected to prompt clashes with the main opposition party, Sinn Féin, led by Mary Lou McDonald.
Varakdar said a move from level 2 to level 5 would have amounted to an “experiment” not tried elsewhere in Europe and that the body in charge of Ireland’s hospitals disagreed with the health chiefs’ capacity concerns.
The Irish Times said the decision had meant “the relationship between the government and NPHET has been fundamentally reset”.