The country could be in lockdown for another six weeks under plans being considered by the Government as the more infectious UK strain of Covid-19 takes a stronger grip.
Ahead of a Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 next week it has emerged ministers are considering an extension of the highest level of coronavirus regulations until just before St Patrick’s Day.
It comes as chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan warned last night the UK strain, which is easier to catch, is now at 60pc of cases and growing.
Worryingly, the spread of Covid-19 has also surged in nursing homes and other long-term care centres in the last three weeks to levels not seen since the first wave last March and April
Up to January 19 there were 483 deaths and of those 55 were linked to outbreaks in hospital settings and another 155 to outbreaks in residential facilities, of whom 139 were residents of nursing homes.
Such a move by Government would mean non-essential retail will remain closed and household visits will continue to be banned until into the second week of March.
Ministers will examine reopening schools and construction but all other aspects of the economy and society are expected to remain closed until March at the earliest.
One Government source suggested schools may not have fully returned before that date.
It comes as Northern Ireland announced plans to extend their national lockdown until March 5.
Th ree senior Government sources said ministers will next week consider extending the lockdown for between four and six weeks. The three well-placed sources said the Government was leaning towards six rather than four weeks of Level 5 restrictions.
However, a fourth Government source involved in the discussion said they expected restrictions to be extended for another four weeks beyond January 31.
The Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 will meet on Monday ahead of a full Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
There is concern in Government about giving the public any indication of when restrictions will be finally eased as people tend to change their behaviour in the weeks before a lockdown ends.
It is believed the public stopped adhering to public health restrictions in mid-November ahead of regulations being eased in December.
There is also a reluctance to take any more risks with restrictions after the massive outbreak of new cases after regulations were eased before Christmas.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the Government was “nowhere near” ready to start easing restrictions as the virus was still rampant in the community. “Things are starting to fall slightly in terms of cases and hospitalisations but not at the pace we would like,” Mr Varadkar told the Dáil.
Details of the extension of the third national lockdown come as 2,608 new cases of Covid-19 were reported along with 51 deaths.
Dr Holohan warned that the “existing measures are working in terms of control of transmission but we need to see them working for a much longer period of time.”
Professor Philip Nolan, who tracks the virus, said when the new UK variant becomes dominant it will add to the R number and it will be “slightly more difficult to maintain the levels of transmission we are seeing now”.
Prof Nolan said levels of infection had fallen in all age groups except in people over 65 but it is growing among those over 85 which will lead to significant deaths.
Health officials warned last night that the level of infection is still extremely high and 10 times higher than it was at the beginning of December.
The number of deaths this month has now risen to 532 and Dr Holohan said he still predicts there could be up to 1,000 deaths from the virus this month.
The R number, which indicates how fast the virus is spreading, is at 0.5 to 0.8 and it needs to be kept under 1.
Hospitals which are continuing to struggle with 1,943 Covid-19 patients, 214 of whom are in intensive care, are having to rely more on surge beds.
Asked about the reopening of schools in February Dr Holohan said education and health service continued to be priorities and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) had given advice to Government.
“While we know we have made substantial progress relative to where we were in the late days of December and early January, we are nowhere near close to where we need to be,” he said.
Referring to reopening of schools he said: “We want to see us being able to restore that as soon as possible but we have more progress to make.”
Philip Ryan and Eilish O’Regan
January 22 2021 02:30 AM