DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland is set to extend a shutdown of the economy until March 5 and will ease restrictions very gradually similar to its exit from an initial lockdown last year if it can suppress COVID-19 again, Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Monday.
COVID-19 cases have begun to fall sharply in Ireland after exploding at the fastest rate in Europe at the turn of the year, fuelled by a four-week relaxation of restrictions and increasing prevalence of a new, more transmissible variant first detected in England.
But with 766 COVID-19 infections per 100,000 people still recorded in the past 14 days, Varadkar and senior ministers will advise the Cabinet on Tuesday to keep most shops, building sites and all hospitality closed until March 5.
Schools will also remain shut for now ahead of a possible phased reopening during February and March if the total number of new cases continues to halve every 10 days, said Varadkar, who was previously prime minister.
"Any easing of restrictions (beyond schools) will have to be very, very, very slow, more like how we eased restrictions after the first wave. So it might start off with just some retail, maybe being able to meet two people outdoors," he told national broadcaster RTE.
"If we can get the figures down very low and if we can get a critical mass vaccinated, we can ease restrictions into that Easter, summer period."
Ireland exited its initial lockdown at a slower pace than most of Europe last year, staggering the reopening of most of the economy over a six-week period.
The Cabinet will also sign off on tougher travel curbs, Varadkar said, including "a travel ban" on arrivals from Brazil and South Africa, where other variants have been detected.
Mandatory hotel quarantine will be introduced for the first time in Ireland for anyone who "somehow" arrives from those two countries, as well as travellers from anywhere else who fail to present a negative test for COVID-19, he added.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Peter Cooney)