May 20, 2020 / 3:44 PM / 13 days ago

Irish health minister says some sectors could reopen ahead of plan

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Some parts of Ireland’s economy could restart ahead of schedule if the novel coronavirus remains under control, Ireland’s Health Minister told Reuters on Wednesday, expressing cautious optimism of moving into phase two of a reopening plan on June 8.

FILE PHOTO: Irish Health Minister Simon Harris attends a news conference on the ongoing situation with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Government Buildings in Dublin, Ireland March 24, 2020. Steve Humphreys/Pool via REUTERS

Ireland partially reopened its economy on Monday, in the first of five stages that constitute one of the most conservative plans in Europe for rolling back a lockdown imposed in late March. The number of new cases recorded of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new virus, has stayed below 100 for four successive days for the first time since March 18.

Pointing to construction work beside his office in central Dublin, where only a small number of builders - many in face shields - were back on site, Harris said there were significant signs of a gradual return to work for those allowed and of people sticking to the plan.

“Anecdotally, my sense is we’re doing well with the lifting of the restrictions... I think that there are reasons for cautious optimism,” Harris said, referring to when the country could move to phase two.

Building sites, garden centres and repair shops were among the limited group allowed to resume operations on Monday, when people were also permitted to meet in non-household groups of four outdoors for the first time in seven weeks.

With pubs having to wait until Aug. 10 and already pushing to move up the queue, Harris said the government had an open mind on which sectors reopened when - but would retain the planned three-week gap between each stage to monitor for any changes in the spread of the virus.

“If the virus is going well, could you look at something in phase four and say bring it to phase three? In theory, yes, but everything is phased based on the potential risk and it will all depend on how people are able to modify that activity,” he said.

Schools are only due to reopen in September and Harris said it was really important that they did. While it will mean classrooms operating in a different way, he also thinks that may not be as “drastic or dramatic” as some people think.

“DON’T VISIT NOW”

Other parts of society, such as nursing home care, would have to operate differently in future, said Harris, who at 33 is the youngest member of Ireland’s cabinet.

With care homes making up more than half of Ireland’s 1,561 COVID-19 related deaths, he proposed stronger links between private homes and community health services, statutory care to help elderly people live at home for longer and more purpose-built housing for retirees in place of the “outdated model” of congregated living.

Ireland would remain similarly cautious on travel. The soon-to-be mandatory 14-day self-isolation of anyone entering the country would not necessarily remain in place until a vaccine or treatment was found, Harris said, but the government “honestly don’t know” how long it would be needed.

However so-called “travel bubbles” between countries with low infection rates was “a really interesting idea” that merits consideration for a country where tourism-related sectors account for around 10% of the workforce, he added.

“This is the country of ‘céad míle fáilte’,” Harris said, using the Irish phrase meaning ‘100,000 welcomes’. “Please do come and visit Ireland but don’t visit now for non-essential reasons.”

Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Alex Richardson

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