As the Deputy is aware, Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with COVID-19 sets out Ireland's approach to managing and living with COVID-19 in a range of areas over the next 6 - 9 months.
The Plan sets out five levels of response, each with a number of measures designed to help us all lower COVID-19 transmission and setting out what is permitted at that moment in time. It aims to allow society and businesses to be able to operate as normally as possible, while continuing to suppress the virus. The Plan is framed to account for periods during which there is a low incidence of the disease, with isolated clusters and low community transmission, through to situations where there is a high or rapidly increasing incidence, widespread community transmission and the pandemic is escalating rapidly in Ireland and globally. It recognises the need for society and business to be allowed to continue as normally as possible and is designed so that either national or county level restrictions can be applied. Each level outlines what is permitted for social or family gatherings, work and public transport, bars, hotels and restaurants, exercise activities and religious services.
As I am sure the Deputy can appreciate, COVID-19 spreads when individuals and groups come into close contact with one another, enabling the virus to move from one person to another. COVID-19 is infectious in a person with no symptoms, or for the period of time before they develop symptoms. For this reason, we are all asked to be extra careful when socialising and working with others. For now, we must act like we have the virus to protect those around us from infection.
The number of people allowed to gather in different scenarios in the Government Framework are based on a review of international practice and the judgment of public health experts. It seeks to balance the risks of different types of gatherings against the desire to allow normal activities to proceed in so far as possible.
It is advised to socialise safely and within the capacity limits. These various limits in the Levels are all designed to reduce the number of households mixing with each other and cut down the virus’s chances of spreading into more homes.
The Deputy should note, that the numbers should not be considered a target - they are the maximum recommended number. It’s always safer to meet less people, less often, for less time. If we do this, we have a better chance of keeping to the lower Levels in the Framework, and continuing to keep businesses, schools, and healthcare services open, while also protecting the most vulnerable.
The ‘Framework for Restrictive Measures in Response to COVID-19’ in the Living with Covid Plan provides for restrictions on gatherings of people indoors given the higher risk associated with these types of activities and sets out when it is considered that religious services can take place with protective measures (Levels 1 and 2) and when they must move online (Levels 3,4 and 5). Weddings and funerals are exceptions and can continue at every level with limited numbers.
Churches and other places of worship can remain open for private prayer. It is also important to note that at all levels, Ministers of Religion are permitted to travel to perform a service on-line, to minister to the sick, and conduct a funeral or wedding ceremony. The relevant regulations relating to Level 5 restrictions are S.I. 448 of 2020 (Health Act 1947 (Section 31A - Temporary Restrictions) (COVID-19) (NO. 8) Regulations 2020).
Throughout the pandemic, the Government has sought to implement these measures on the basis of guidance as opposed to regulations wherever possible. It should be noted that holding a religious gathering is not a penal offence.
I and my Cabinet colleagues recognise the immense sacrifices that are being made be people across the country at this difficult time. I know that that includes many people who are affected by their inability to attend church in the way they have been used to. However, there has been significant engagement and solidarity from the Catholic Church and other Faiths at all stages throughout this pandemic to ensure the protection of individuals and communities from COVID-19. Indeed, the Taoiseach has recently met with the leaders of the Catholic Church to consider the range of issues relating this matter.
Finally, the Deputy will wish to note that comprehensive guidelines are in place to ensure that religious services can take place safely when they recommence: https://www.hpsc.ie/a-z/respiratory/coronavirus/novelcoronavirus/guidance/religioussettingsguidance/COVID_religious%20settings.pdf