A significant majority of construction projects are set to close for January except for essential projects, including social housing and essential public works.

A precise list of essential projects will be refined at Cabinet tomorrow, following a lengthy meeting today of the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19.

The sub-committee also agreed that the ECCE pre-school scheme should stay closed for January, but creches can remain open for the children of essential workers.

It was also agreed that all travellers arriving into Ireland from Britain and South Africa will have to provide a negative Covid-19 test.

From Saturday, there will be a new requirement for arrivals from those countries to have a negative PCR test within the preceding 72 hours.

The proposal is expected to be approved by Cabinet tomorrow.

Also expected to be discussed is a proposal to ban click-and-collect services for non-essential retail outlets.

The Minister of State for Skills and Further Education, Niall Collins, said there will be further discussions around the construction sector at Cabinet tomorrow.

Speaking on RTÉ's Prime Time, he said it is about limiting the movement and mobility of people for a period of time in order to completely arrest the upper trajectory in terms of the numbers we are seeing reported each day.

Earlier today, Taoiseach Micheál Martin described the situation with Covid-19 as "very, very serious" and said the rapid growth of the disease had "exceeded any expectation".

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, he said up to 135,000 people will be vaccinated with two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine by the end of February.

He said that while a reduction in the 5km travel limit to 2km would not necessarily be on the agenda for today's sub-committee meeting, the advice is still for people to stay at home over the next number of weeks, and to only leave their homes for essential purposes.

This evening, the Department of Health confirmed an additional 5,325 cases of Covid-19 and 17 further deaths.

The 14-day incidence of the disease now stands at 674.4 per 100,000 people.

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Mr Martin said decisions that may be made "will not be a reflection" of how individual sectors have performed during the pandemic.

He said: "That's all in the agenda today, and I gave you the overall principles that will inform the discussions today is reducing mobility, as much as we possibly can, and the essential necessity of everybody to adhere to the guidelines, because that is the way that we suppress this virus.

"That is the way we protect our hospitals. That is the way we protect the most vulnerable in our society. 

"This isn't about one sector performing. It's about an overall societal response to a very rapid spread.

"It is a collective societal response that is the principle that will govern decisions today. It's not a reflection on any individual sector."

135,000 vaccinated by end of February

Mr Martin said up to 135,000 people will be vaccinated with two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine by the end of February.

He said that 35,000 doses would be administered this week alone and he said he did not accept that the roll-out could be described as slow.

"We will deliver the programme in accordance with the supply chain - as we get vaccines we will be injecting people," he said.

"By the end of February we will have 135,000 people vaccinated with two doses.

"And that's about 75,000 people in long-term care facilities, both residents and staff, and up to about 60,000 frontline healthcare workers. This relates to the supplies that we can be assured of from Pfizer/BioNtech."

He urged people to be patient, adding that the safe administration of vaccines is paramount. 

"More vaccines will come on stream and we will be in a very different position in the summer time. I have no doubt about that, there is light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Mr Martin said he expects "that private hospital capacity will have to be used and drawn upon on this occasion".

The Taoiseach also said he believes the HSE is "close to signing off on a deal" with the private hospitals.

Looking to the future, he said it was "reasonable to say let’s get the most vulnerable vaccinated first before there is any substantial relaxing of restrictions".

Up to 12 weeks of restrictions may be needed

Between eight and 12 weeks of restrictions may be required to get this level of Covid-19 transmission under control and see figures drop, according to the Associate Professor and Head of the Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Prof Sam McConkey told RTÉ's Drivetime that we then need a satisfactory exit strategy to keep the numbers down and we need to enhance our ability to trace contacts quickly.

He said the outbreak now is worse than it was back in March 2020.

The increase in cases cannot be blamed on the new variant, he said, as it does not account for the majority of cases.

Prof McConkey said we are seeing the transformation of our hospitals, yet again, into emergency coping centres to provide care for as many people as possible.

It is about "implementing the immediate surge capacity plan, and that's very disruptive to the other aspects of our healthcare", he added.