The Government's proposed timescale for the easing of Covid-19 restrictions has been criticised as lacking ambition by a Fianna Fáil backbench TD.

Marc MacSharry also told the Dáil that the plan lacks strategy.

"It's 'live horse and get grass'  and 'things will get better' and 'in about two years time we can all look forward to eating al fresco, two people per acre while it is raining," he said.

Mr MacSharry added that there is still no one in charge of the vaccine roll-out. "Once there is plausible deniability, everyone gets blamed," he said

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said Deputy MacSharry, who was "screaming for zero Covid five or six days ago, is now screaming that we are not opening up quickly enough." 

Mr Donnelly said we could have "a really good summer" if people continue to adhere to measures to keep the virus down for "that bit longer." 

He told the Dáil that the next six to eight weeks are vital as more people, particularly the more vulnerable are vaccinated. 

Many countries in Europe are suffering "brutal resurgences" of Covid-19, he said, with some experiencing a very real shortage of hospital beds. 

"Because people have backed the Level 5 measures to date, Ireland now has one of the lowest Covid rates in Europe. While other countries are sadly having to impose new lockdowns, in Ireland we are having a national conversation about a cautious, but a steady path out of the pandemic," he said. 

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer , meanwhile, said people can and should be optimistic for an enjoyable summer ahead.

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However, Dr Ronan Glynn cautioned that everyone has to work together to prevent a further wave of Covid-19 infections as vaccinating is accelerated across society and health services are maintained.

He said there is a critical window over the next eight weeks where any significant increase in close contacts is likely to lead to a significant fourth wave of infection, similar in size to that experienced in January this year.

The National Public Health Emergency Team has said 15% of the population are no longer susceptible to Covid-19, either because they have already been infected or they have been vaccinated.

Yet despite this, the new dominant B117 variant of the virus is up to 90% more transmissible and is infecting twice as many close contacts as before.

Some very detailed modelling, presented by NPHET for the first time yesterday, suggests that opening schools fully and allowing for the very modest additional social contacts that will follow, will drive Covid-19 up to a peak of 920 cases per day by late May and we will see 80,000 more cases in total over the next six months.

But if allowing for a moderate increase in social contacts, similar to how people behaved in late summer last year, NPHET's analysis says case numbers will peak at 9,500 per day, with a likelihood of 578,000 new cases before the end of September - seven times more.

It is not inevitable, however. Nor is it what NPHET expects will happen. 

Instead, Dr Glynn said he believes people will embrace the public health message and postpone increasing social contacts for up to eight weeks, which would prevent the fourth wave of infection, and save 400,000 people from becoming infected during the next six months.

Meanwhile, three new walk-in Covid-19 test centres opened today in Finglas and Balbriggan in Dublin and Navan in Co Meath.

This morning, HSE Chief Executive Paul Reid tweeted that over four million Covid-19 tests have now been completed in the country during the pandemic.

Booksellers push for 'essential' status

Bookselling Ireland has called for bookshops to be classed as 'essential retail' and be allowed to open, or offer click and collect services.

The organisation said that the survival of the bookselling sector in Ireland is very much at risk, and the loss of bookshops would be devastating for individuals and local communities.

Bookselling Ireland has written to the Taoiseach highlighting what it terms inconsistencies within the current definitions of essential retail, with essential retailers that sell books being allowed to remain open while booksellers themselves have been forced to shut.

Bookshops in Ireland directly employ over 4,000 people and support other jobs in the supply chain, and a recent report noted that the sector is estimated to pay a wage bill of €35.9m, all of which could be under threat.

B117 variant causing 'almost all of the problems'

The head of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Nottingham, has said the B117 variant is "almost a completely different virus" and is causing the "almost all of the problems". 

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Professor James McInerney said that at first they thought it was just more transmissible, but it has a higher hospitalisation and ICU rate.

He said the old lockdown measures that saw case numbers drop "seem to work a little bit" but we are now experiencing a stabilisation and it is "very hard to drive the numbers down further".

"You could almost say it's a completely different virus, it is that different", Prof McInerney said.

"In the beginning we thought it was just transmission, but now you've a 50% higher chance of ending up in hospital, the percentage that end up in ICU is double what the other variants are. It's almost a completely different virus... it's causing almost all of the problems."