Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said the move late last year from Level 5 restrictions back to Level 3 "turned out to be too quick".

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, Mr Varadkar said that this was the advice given to the Government by the National Public Health Emergency Team.

He said: "I am not sure we would take that advice if that advice was to be given again, because that turned out to be too quick."

At the time, NPHET did advise moving to enhanced Level 3 measures for an eight-week period from 2 December, and a further easing of some measures for two weeks over the Christmas and New Year period.

It advised that one household could visit another from 2 December, and three households could visit another from 21 December.

NPHET said if some element of hospitality was opened, the measures around household visits from 21 December could not take place.

The Government ultimately decided to open up hospitality from 4 December, but not to allow household visits until 19 December, when three households could visit another.

In November the Chief Medical Officer advised the Minister for Health that in NPHET's view the country did not have the flexibility to enable resumption of hospitality in restaurants and bars as well as easing the prohibition on mixing between households.

Dr Tony Holohan warned Minister Stephen Donnelly that easing restrictions and allowing inter-generational mixing during the Christmas period may result in a significant rise in infection among the most vulnerable.

He said these people are most likely to require hospitalisation and ICU admission and in whom mortality will be highest.

In his letter to Minister Donnelly, the CMO also warned that the health service remains very vulnerable.

Asked if Government would follow NPHET's advice this time when it comes to relaxing restrictions, Mr Varadkar said the Government always listens to NPHET's advice but also has to take into account other factors, such as "people's constitutional freedoms" along with their livelihoods and what is happening around the world. 

"We will listen to and we will consider NPHET advice, but ultimately it is a decision of Government," he said.

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Mr Varadkar said a reopening of the country is going to be "very slow" and the Government "would be reluctant" to see any significant easing of Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions "until ICU numbers fall towards, and below 50".

He said this would not preclude the reopening of schools, "but a wider reopening is a different thing".

He said any easing would be "limited" and would involve "the reopening of schools, maybe some construction, and perhaps outdoor retail", but "for the vast majority of businesses, it is possible that they will remain closed until the end of March".

Mr Varadkar said the prevalence of the new variant of Covid-19 "means that it is going to be much harder to get down to low numbers that we saw in the summer", and he added that the risk of the new variant is that it "can cause things to deteriorate more quickly".