Michael McHugh, PA
Ministers will not consider reopening hospitality until the middle of the summer, the Taoiseach said.
Micheál Martin expressed concern about uncertainties surrounding new variants of coronavirus and high numbers of infections.
Three cases of the potentially more infectious Brazilian mutation have been detected in Ireland.
Mr Martin said: “We don’t foresee that (reopening pubs etc) before the middle of the summer.
“What the public health authorities are saying is that we stick with this until end of April, then we reflect on the situation and make decisions about the months ahead.”
He also told RTÉ that reopening the country will be a slow process.
“There won’t be much of a change (after this phase) because the numbers are still too high,” he said.
“What we intend is to reopen schools gradually, it will be slow, we’ll be cautious, because we have to monitor the effect on the virus.
“The biggest challenge we face is new variants as they could impact the vaccines.
“It’s sensible to open slowly, as the vaccines are coming.”
Meanwhile, the head of the Catholic Church has said people should be able to gather safely to mark Easter in Ireland.
Ministers should also consider increasing the number of bereaved allowed to attend funerals during the pandemic, Archbishop Eamon Martin urged the Taoiseach.
Mr Martin said his concerns will be given consideration.
The Taoiseach met a group of bishops on Friday to discuss the church’s desire to return to worship during the season of Lent.
The Taoiseach’s office said: “They shared their concern that life at present is particularly stressful and difficult for people to endure, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
“Recognising the spiritual comfort and hope that participation in public worship brings, the archbishops asked that public worship resume when an easing of restrictions is considered.
“They expressed a strong desire that people might gather safely this year for the important ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter.
“They also requested consideration of an increase in the number of the bereaved who may attend funeral Masses.”
Public health message
The archbishops emphasised they wish to continue supporting the public health message and to encourage all necessary measures, including vaccination, to protect health and wellbeing, especially that of the most vulnerable.
The Taoiseach acknowledged the importance of the Church community in people’s lives at such time of stress and worry.
His office said: “He outlined the ongoing concerns regarding the spread of the virus, particularly the new variants, stressing that any increase at all in mobility can have serious consequences for public health and put pressure on the health service.
“In concluding, he said the concerns raised at the meeting would be given consideration.
“It was agreed to maintain dialogue as the situation evolves.”
All three cases of the Brazilian variant found in Ireland are directly associated with recent travel from the South American country, authorities have said.
They are being followed up by public health teams and enhanced measures have been put in place.
The variant could be much more contagious than the original version of coronavirus, officials say.
It has undergone changes to its spike protein — the part of the virus which attaches to human cells.
It first emerged in July.
Around 90 per cent of Covid-19 cases in Ireland are associated with the UK variant.
But numbers of new infections and pressure on hospitals has eased and the death toll has begun to abate following weeks of tough curbs.
The Republic recently passed the grim milestone of 4,000 dead from the disease.
Up to Wednesday, 4,174 people aged 85 and over had received their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine, the HSE said.
The total number of first doses was 197,609 and second doses 113,291 — making an overall tally of 310,900.