We’re at Level Two of the new Covid plan. Here’s why we want to get to One (and avoid Five at all costs)

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The government unveiled its new framework for living with Covid-19 over the next six to nine months today.

IT HAD BEEN flagged well in advance, and today we got the government’s grand plan for living with Covid-19 for the next six months.

It’s a framework of five levels. At each level, there are different restrictions in place based on the current status of Covid-19 in the country. 

If we’re at Level One, we’re coping quite well with Covid and the loosest guidelines are in place. Level Five is not where we want to be, and will be akin to the full lockdown we had in April and May. 

Currently, the country is at Level Two. Well, most counties are. There will be extra restrictions in effect in Dublin from midnight tonight. But Dublin isn’t at Level Three. More a Level Two plus (more on that later). 

Last week, the Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said that today’s announcement would be a chance for the government to “press reset” and improve its communication with the people.

“We need to up our game on this,” he said. “And next week is an opportunity to do so.”

Not all clear yet? Little of the details were provided at the press conference earlier today, with the more in-depth details published by the government online this afternoon.

Let’s dive into each of these so-called levels and what each one will mean.

The Levels

The government wants this system to mean we can go about our daily lives as much as possible while managing the “behaviour of the virus”. 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that it’ll be some time before a vaccine is widely available so we need to be able to live with the virus while also living our lives at the same time. 

According to the government’s plan, the “lower levels will be activated when there is a low incidence of the disease, with isolated outbreaks, low community transmission”.

On the other hand, “the higher levels will be used to deal with higher incidences of the disease”. 

Moving from one to another will be based on a number of factors, including the 14-day and 7-day figures on new cases, the 5-day rolling average of cases by county and nationally. 

Other indicators will be the reproduction number, positivity rate, the capacity and performance of contact tracing and testing, and the capacity and admissions hospitals and ICU.

If all of these are increasing, the decision could be made to up an area’s – or the whole country’s – level.

It’ll be possible for different regions and counties to be at a different level to the national level, depending on the incidence of the virus in those areas. For example, while it’s not yet at Level Three, Dublin has a far greater figure for cases per 100,000 population over the past two weeks. 

The restrictions at Level Three are far more stringent than at Level Two, so it’ll be hoped that the spread of the virus can be stemmed in the capital in the next few days and weeks.

To move up a level, the situation would have to worsen considerably in an area.

This could include the capacity to test and trace being constrained due to demand, the admissions to hospital and critical care increasing, a significant increase in the incidence rate and multiple clusters with secondary spread.

Serious implications

NO FEE GIS COVID RESILIENCE  NATIONAL RECOVERY PLAN JB7
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly


Source: Julien Behal Photography

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was clear that updating an area’s level from two to three, for example, would have serious implications.

He told today’s press conference: “It’s a serious thing to do for any county. It has a serious impact on jobs, and a serious impact on how we live our lives.”

When asked why the advice within Level Two was different for Dublin compared to the rest of the country, Donnelly said that “within any level”, NPHET could provide advice. 

The government document added: “At  all times the priority guiding the plan will be to keep our schools open while keeping people safe and protecting the resilience of our economy and communities.”

Level One

This is where we want to be. 

It’d mean that we’re at a level where there is a very low incidence of Covid-19 in an area. Community transmission is suppressed, hospitalisations are stable or decreasing, few or no clusters and all other indicators low.

But it also doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want. 

Looking ahead to Christmas, for example, if we were to reach a stage where we were at Level One we could still only have 10 visitors from up to three households under this plan. 

Members of different households can continue to meet socially in other settings – like pubs or restaurants – with strict adherence to guidelines. 

Gatherings

Weddings of up to 100 people can take place.

When it comes to organised indoor gatherings, such as conferences, events in theatres and cinemas, most venues can have a maximum of 100 people in attendance.

Up to 200 patrons are allowed for “larger [indoor]venues” where strict two-metre seated social distancing can be observed. 

When it comes to outdoor gatherings, such as sports events, most venues can have a maximum of 200 patrons. Outdoor stadia can have up to 500 patrons – with strict distancing – when there’s a maximum capacity of 5,000.

When it comes to sports, normal training sessions and games can take place indoors and outdoors with protective measures.

Religious services can take place for up to 50 worshippers, or more in larger venues. 

Furthermore, those aged over 70 and the medically vulnerable should “exercise judgement regarding the extent to which they engage with others and in activities outside home”. Nursing homes and care homes can also open with protective measures in place.

Hospitality, retail and work

Bars, cafes and restaurants will be open under the guidelines already issued to the hospitality sector. Hotels and accommodation will be permitted to do likewise.

The wet pubs can be open but nightclubs, discos and casinos will remain closed.

There are no restrictions on domestic travel so staycations can still be enjoyed. 

Face coverings must be worn in retail settings and on public transport. 

Museums, galleries and other cultural attractions can open in line with public health guidance.

Even at Level One, people are advised to work from home if possible. You are allowed attend work for specific business requirements and on a staggered attendance basis. 

Level Two

This is where we are right now

At this level, the majority of areas of economy and society such as schools, restaurants, pubs and gyms are open.

Sporting activities can continue but with a higher level of restrictions than in Level One.

Gatherings

People can have visitors from a maximum of three households up to six people. In Dublin, no more than six people from two households can gather. 

Members of different households can meet socially with up to 15 people outdoors, including Dublin. However, the guidance says that socialising can continue at indoor or outdoor public venues in Dublin “but only with people from your own household or one other household, and in groups of maximum six people”.

People in Dublin are encouraged to limit travel outside that region, and only meet one other household when outside the county. 

Weddings with up to 50 people can take place.

Indoor gatherings can take place with at most 50 people, divided into pods or groups of six with no intermingling, and larger venues can have 100.

Up to 100 people are permitted at outdoor venues or 200 where the venue has a capacity of 5,000.

Sport training can take place in pods of 15 outdoors or 6 indoors. Up to 50 spectators/patrons indoors can attend sports events, 100 outdoors, and 200 in venues with a capacity of 5,000.

50 people can attend religious services or more in larger venues. Funerals can have a maximum of 50 people in attendance. 

Those in at-risk groups should exercise judgement in how much they take part in activities.

Nursing homes and care homes are open with enhanced protective measures.

Hospitality, retail and work

Bars, cafes and restaurants will be open under the guidelines already issued to the hospitality sector. Hotels and accommodation will be permitted to do likewise.

Wet pubs will also be permitted to open at Level Two. However, in Dublin, they will not be permitted to do so. The set date for re-opening pubs in the rest of the country is 21 September. 

There are no restrictions on domestic travel. 

Face coverings must be worn in retail settings and on public transport. 

Museums, galleries and other cultural attractions can open in line with public health guidance.

People are advised to work from home if possible but attend for essential on-site meetings, inductions, and training.

Level Three

The restrictions get much stricter at Level Three, and it’s believed Dublin may be perilously close to getting upgraded to this level. NPHET is due to meet to discuss the situation in Dublin again on Thursday.

The government said the priority at this level is to keep schools and childcare facilities open and minimise disruption in the workforce.

It means that the likes of museums and other indoor cultural venues would be closed.

Gatherings

Visitors from only one other household are permitted. 

No gatherings at all are permitted in social settings. 

Up to 25 people can attend a wedding.

No organised indoor gathering (theatre event, cinema, training event, conference etc.) should take place. 

Outdoor gatherings of up to 15 can take place.

For Sports, non-contact training only in pods of up to 15 (with an exemption for professional, elite, inter-county sports, senior club championship). 

No matches or events can take place, except in those cases listed above. Horse racing is also permitted. 

Gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools can still open for individual training only.

Religious services will move online, although venues will remain open for private prayer and a maximum of 25 people can attend funerals.

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Access to long-term residential care facilities (nursing and care homes) will be suspended aside from critical and compassionate circumstances. 

Hospitality, retail and work

All museums, galleries and other cultural attractions will close. 

Restaurants can remain open but with additional restrictions for indoor dining. Although the plan says “additional restrictions” would apply to wet pubs, an earlier version of the plan it says that pubs would close under Level Three.

Hotels will be permitted to open but with services limited to residents. 

You’ll also be advised to stay in your county apart from work, education and other essential purposes. You are advised to work from home unless absolutely necessary to attend in person. 

While schools will remain open, higher education facilities will be urged to escalate all protective measures and limit congregation as far as possible.

Public transport will be down to 50% capacity and limited to essential journeys only.

Level Four

This is more serious again.

The government said the priority here is still to keep schools and childcare services open, even though the virus has significantly worsened in an area. It features measures similar to what we experienced earlier in the year. 

It said: “Businesses and services which are essential will be open. No visitors to private homes or social gatherings will be allowed. All businesses and services will be closed, other than those deemed to be essential.”

In some ways, it’s more straightforward as most things will be closed. Here’s a breakdown:

  • No home visits
  • Up to six people at weddings
  • No indoor gatherings
  • Up to 15 people at outdoor gatherings
  • Non-contact sports training outdoors at take place in pods of 15
  • Gyms, leisure centres, and swimming pools closed
  • Up to 25 at funerals
  • Takeaway service only at bars, cafes, and restaurants, and outdoor dining of up to 15 people
  • Up to 15 people outdoors at wet pubs
  • Hotels open only for existing guests and those on essential non-social and non-tourist visits
  • Essential retail and businesses that are primarily outdoors only can remain open. All other retail and personal services closed.
  • Public transport down to 25% capacity
  • Higher education moves primarily online.

Level Five

This is absolutely not where we want to be. 

Under the plan, it says that we’ve reached a stage where hospital or critical care capacity is “likely” to be exceeded.

It means that the number of deaths, the number of new cases, the number of hospital admissions, the number of outbreaks – all are rapidly increasing.

And we already know what it’s like to live through Level Five. We did so, more or less, throughout April and May. 

Here’s a breakdown of the measures:

  • Full lockdown – stay at home and exercise with 5km of your home
  • No visitors to your home
  • Takeaway service only at bars, restaurants, cafes, and wet pubs
  • Up to 10 people at funerals
  • No outdoor sport training
  • All non-essential retail must close
  • Schools remain open.

Going forward

Reading through these levels, it’s clear that whichever way we go we’re going to be living with this virus for a long time.

Even if we reach Level One – and let’s really hope we do – it still won’t be life as we know it. 

And, if it goes the other way, the government’s plan emphasises the importance of communicating effectively to the public the reasons why an action is being taken and what must be done to help stem the spread of the virus. 

It says: “As the plan is executed, government will work to ensure that the rationale for the measures, the public health triggers that raised the risk level and the implications for specific groups, sectors, individuals are clearly articulated.

The more challenging the message, the more important it is that we provide opportunities for engagement and debate, but ultimately ensure that public gets clear and unambiguous messages.

With a long way to go before we see the back of Covid-19, communicating to the public effectively will be vital as we go forward with the potential for very strict restrictions to take effect again. 

However, we are currently at Level Two. The overall aim of the plan is understood to be about setting out a more steady approach and avoid the kind of overnight shock announcements of severe restrictions that we saw earlier in the year.

With this plan now in place, the government will have to succeed in its aim of communicating more effectively as we go through this.

And let’s hope we’re all at Level One in time for Christmas.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin at today's press conference.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin at today’s press conference.

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