Ireland has delayed the reopening of indoor hospitality and plans to limit indoor dining to people who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
The government announced the changes on Tuesday after health officials warned of a possible wave of infections and deaths driven by the Delta variant.
Cafes and restaurants were due to resume indoor hospitality – accessible to everyone – on 5 July. Instead, the sector will reopen at a later date, yet to be decided, and be limited to customers who can prove they have been vaccinated or have had coronavirus within the past nine months.
“We are in a race between the variant and vaccine … and we want to do everything we can to ensure the vaccines win,” said the taoiseach, Micheal Martin.
Ireland is one of the only countries in Europe to retain a ban on indoor hospitality.
Its decision to limit access to those who are vaccinated or recovered from infection follows a similar move by several countries such as Austria, Germany, Cyprus, Denmark and Latvia.
Delaying the resumption of indoor dining had been widely expected but the decision to limit access to certain categories came with little warning and created a sense of disarray within government.
Martin made the announcement without any plans for certification, monitoring or enforcement, prompting some hospitality industry representatives to brand the rules unworkable. The health minister, Stephen Donnelly, said officials would work “urgently” with business owners to create a plan.
A gradual relaxing of restrictions has not produced a spike in infections and 40% of the population are now fully vaccinated.
However optimism that Ireland was on track for the next phase of reopening evaporated when the National Public Health Emergency Team warned of a dramatic surge in infections if the Delta variant coincided with relaxations in the coming weeks.
“Up until now it was the policy of NPHET and government not to have vaccine passes. Delta has changed that,” said Leo Varadkar, the deputy prime minister.
Under the worst case scenario Ireland, with a population of just under 5 million, would see 1,740 deaths in September and with 1,200 people in intensive care, overwhelming hospitals.
“The increased risk of onward transmission associated with this variant makes a significant fourth wave of infection likely. What is uncertain is the magnitude of this fourth wave,” said the emergency team.
The government, stung by memories of January when Ireland had the world’s highest infection rate, bowed to the public health advice in a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning.
Martin said a date for the resumption of indoor dining would have to wait for a plan that is to be drawn up by 19 July.
“The best way to ensure and protect sustained social and economic progress is to continue to keep the virus under control. Today’s adjustment to our plan is another twist in our story, but our direction of travel is unchanged. We are emerging from the pandemic. We are coming out of this.”
Indoor dining at hotels and guest houses resumed on 2 June but solely for overnight guests.
Other relaxations are going ahead. From 5 July the number of people allowed at weddings will double from 25 to 50 and spectators at sports grounds can swell to 200 or up to 500 at certain venues. On 19 July, Ireland will permit international travel under the EU digital Covid certificate.
Critics of limiting indoor dining to the vaccinated said it would violate equality legislation and be unworkable, especially since restaurants tended to employ younger, unvaccinated people.
“They have come up with this plan at the 11th hour of the 11th hour with absolutely no planning. We have had a number of setbacks in this industry and this is another one,” said Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland.