By Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries
DUBLIN (Reuters) -Ireland hopes to reopen all shops for the first time this year in May and hotels in June, Prime Minister Micheál Martin said on Tuesday, as the government announced a minor easing of one of Europe's toughest and longest-running national lockdowns.
Ireland shut most shops, building sites and hospitality in late December after a brief reopening led to an enormous spike in COVID-19 infections. A steady fall in infection rates since then has stalled in the last two weeks. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)
With patience fraying among many people, the government will allow two households to meet outdoors from April 12 and lift a 5-kilometre (3.1-mile) travel limit to provide for travel within each county. All housebuilding will also recommence after April 12. Starting immediately, two fully vaccinated people can meet indoors.
The resumption of some outdoor sports, childrens' activities and the reopening of outdoor attractions such as zoos will follow two weeks later with a promise of "much greater freedom later in the summer" if a fourth wave of the disease is avoided and Ireland's vaccination programme ramps up as forecast.
"All across Europe now, it (COVID-19) is causing very seriously difficulties in yet another surge. We can avoid this if we move forward sensibly and safely," Martin said in a televised address, telling people that they were on the final stretch of a terrible journey.
Ireland's third shutdown in the last year has turned one of the world's highest incidence rates of COVID-19 in January into one of Europe's lowest. The number of cases per 100,000 people measured over the past 14 days has hovered at around 160.
Like the rest of the European Union, Ireland's vaccine rollout has been hit by supply problems but daily vaccinations rose substantially to their highest level to date last week.
Martin said 80% of adults should have received at least one dose of a vaccine by the end of June, with 70% potentially fully vaccinated a month later. That would allow for "significant opportunities to reopen even further," he said. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/3tUM8ta)
While hotel operators welcomed the prospect of reopening in June, restaurant and bar owners reacted angrily to their omission from the plan.
"No dates. No plan. No hope for our industry at the moment. We're very confused. We don't understand why he (Martin) didn't mention the rest of hospitality," said Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries; Editing by David Gregorio and Lisa Shumaker)