The Cabinet has agreed to extend Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions until 5 April. However, the phased return of schools will get under way next Monday, 1 March.

The Taoiseach made the announcement at Government Buildings this evening. 

In his address, Micheál Martin acknowledged the difficulties the country faces with the extension of the Level 5 restrictions but he said "we will get through this, we just need to stay focused and get through these next few months safely together".

He said he knows how hard this is and the toll it is taking on people's mental health and well-being.

The Taoiseach said he knows the devastation the pandemic has brought to so many businesses and livelihoods, "but I also know that the end is now truly in sight".

The phased school return will see Leaving Cert students returning to school next week. Primary school students from junior infants to second class will also return then.

The early childhood pre-school scheme will resume on 8 March with all childcare returning on 29 March.

Remaining primary school students and fifth-year secondary school students will return on 15 March, subject to ongoing reviews.

All other secondary school students will go back to school on 12 April - after the Easter holidays.

The Government's plan will see the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and supports for businesses extended until the end of June.

There will also be an updated vaccination priority list, where those with underlying illnesses are set to be moved up.

Mr Martin said the way forward in the pandemic is split into two phases - from now until 5 April and from 5 April onwards.

He said the phased and safe return of schools from 1 March would involve the return of 320,000 pupils.

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Mr Martin paid tribute to people's efforts to suppress the virus since the start of the year, while acknowledging that people are physically and emotionally exhausted by the pandemic.

He said the emergence of the B117 variant was like dealing with a new virus.

The Taoiseach said to open up the country safely, infection numbers needed to be kept low and there had to be an accelerated vaccine roll-out.

The Taoiseach said that if a downward pressure on the virus can be maintained, then the country could move into the next phase.

He said the Government will examine whether it will be safe to begin easing the restrictions on outdoor gatherings, some sporting activities, the gradual opening of construction and the 5km limit on non-essential travel could be reviewed. 

He said the key concern is the potential impact of increased mobility on the disease especially with new variant and how quickly it spreads.

Non-Covid health and social care services are also to resume over the coming weeks, according to the Taoiseach.

He said the situation would be reviewed in advance of 5 April. He said it is critically important that people do not let their guard down.

He said when services reopen, he wanted them to stay open, "which is why I cannot over emphasise the importance of continued observance of Level 5 restrictions", he said.

On the vaccine roll-out, Mr Martin said that by the end of March, 1.25 million doses will have been administered.

He said, depending on vaccines arriving as scheduled, they will administer on average, more than one million
doses per month during April, May and June. 

He said, by the end of April, up to 40% of people over 18 years of age will have had their first dose - by the end of May, up to 64% will have had their first dose.

By the end of June, he said, up to 82% of adults who can be vaccinated will have received at least one dose and 55%-60% will be fully vaccinated. 

He added that over 350,000 vaccines have already been administered, but the country was not in a position to
implement a major ramping up of the programme.

He said the current vaccination programme is on a scale that is unprecedented in the country's history.

Business supports

The Taoiseach said the Government will be maintaining all of the various support schemes for businesses and individuals, due to close on 31 March, until the end of June.

He said a new National Economic Recovery Plan, to reboot the economy in the aftermath of the pandemic is already in advanced stages of development. 

He said €20 million in new funding was agreed today for mental health supports and investment in communities.

Earlier, the Opposition accused the Government of providing confusing messages in the lead-up to the publication of the plan.

People Before Profit's Richard Boyd-Barrett said infection rates should be close to zero before schools reopen.

Sinn Féin, Labour and the Social Democrats want mandatory hotel quarantine for all arrivals here to form part of the plan amid signs, they said, that people were angry and frustrated with the current strategy. 

Responding to the publication of the Government's plan, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that as a country, we still do not have a plan to "sustainably" get out of the current lockdown. 

Additional reporting Paul Cunningham