I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to update the House on the Government’s response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the roll-out of the national vaccine programme.
Considerable progress has been made in reducing infection levels since the start of the year. The main reason for this is widespread adherence to the public health measures. I and my colleagues are very aware of the enormous imposition these measures have had on people, on mental health, on isolation, on loneliness, on wellness, on livelihoods, and on so much more. Despite this, and in spite of how difficult it has been for everybody, Ireland has achieved and sustained one of the lowest rates of infections in Europe, and that is something for which everyone in this House is immensely proud of our nation for having achieved. I sincerely thank everyone around the country for their collective efforts and support of the public health measures over the past months. We are now beginning to see the benefits of this collective national effort to limit the spread of the virus and its impact on our communities. Last week, the Government agreed to move ahead with the next stage of our plan, Recovery and Resilience: The Path Ahead. The only reason we could do this was because of the national effort put in to suppress the virus, protect against the importation of variants and roll out the vaccines.
Ireland is one of only a handful of countries in Europe that has fully reopened schools. Over the past few weeks, our young people have been back playing sports. From Monday next, personal services, museums, galleries and libraries will reopen. More people can meet up outdoors, and this will include in gardens, which has been warmly welcomed. Our churches are recommencing in-person religious services and the numbers attending weddings and funerals will be increasing. Intercounty travel will resume, and this means families all over Ireland will be able to meet up with their loved ones and friends for the first time in many months. From 17 May, all remaining retail will open.
The effect of easing the restrictions on ongoing public health measures is, of course, being watched closely so we understand the impact of these changes in respect of the spread of Covid-19. If the situation remains stable, the Government intends proceeding with the next phase of easing restrictions in early June. While we are all keen to hear good news, we must be balanced, or course, in our assessment. The reality is that there is much that remains uncertain. It is important we convey to people just how important it is that we all stick with the existing measures while we are opening. As of 4 May, the 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 of the population was 134. That is one of the lowest rates in the EU, but it is still significantly higher here now than it was just two weeks ago. That figure has been rising.
Despite the progress, we know this is a virus, and particularly the B.1.1.7 variant, which accounts for the majority of cases here, that quickly gains a foothold when given the slightest opportunity.
The Seychelles, which is the most vaccinated nation in the world, is experiencing a big surge in Covid cases. It is not alone. By the end of March 2021, more than one in three Chileans had reportedly received a full course of vaccination, yet Covid cases are surging in Chile and authorities have had to look at lockdown measures again. Several reasons have been put forward for this unexpected jump, including the spread of more virulent strains from neighbouring Brazil and reduced adherence to social distancing during the vaccination programme, which some are suggesting, due to a false sense of security before a sufficient number of people were vaccinated.
We need to remain vigilant and continue to reduce the transmission of this virus in our communities. In particular, we need to stick to the new guidance on numbers of households and individuals meeting up outdoors and minimise the risks of transmission during close contact. As we all know, it is something which, as a nation, we know how to do and are good at doing, which is how we have had such a big reduction in case numbers since January.
The Government’s approach to tackling Covid-19 is comprehensive and includes measures to deal with the risk posed to our population by the variants of concern. We have the strongest measures in place anywhere in Europe, by a long way, in terms of minimising the importation of the variants of concern. The measures we have in place are working, and working well.
Mandatory hotel quarantine is one part of this, and plays an important role in combatting Covid and, in particular, variants of concern. As of 3 May 2021, 2,511 people have entered mandatory hotel quarantine, with 1,567 people having completed their stay. Some 75 cases have been detected among those residents, with nine of these cases being variants of concern. More may be discovered as we do the genome sequencing on the latest cases. Mandatory hotel quarantine is mitigating the risk of the spread of Covid-19 and, more importantly, the variants of Covid-19. It is, for now, a necessary component of our public health response to protect the public, our health system and our vaccination programme. One of the biggest benefits of the hotel quarantining system is not even in the figures I have read out. The biggest benefit is the deterrent effect it has on reducing the number of inbound travellers from the countries that our public health experts have identified as those of most concern to us because of the presence of the variants of concern.
The roll-out of the national vaccination programme continues apace and I welcome the opportunity to provide colleagues with an update. As of 4 May 2021, a total of 1,655,866 vaccine doses-----