Thousands begin return to office as Covid-19 measures ease
Tens of thousands of workers across the country will begin returning to their offices and places of work from today, as Covid-19 restrictions ease further.
Rules around organised indoor group activities are also being relaxed, while limits on outdoor group activities for participants are being removed.
The changes come some 18 months after non-essential workers who did not need to be in their workplaces to do their jobs were first directed by the Government to being working from home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The near overnight introduction of the rules forced many workers and their employers to adapt to a completely new way of remote working that they had not been used to.
But with Covid-19 vaccination rates among those over the age of 12 years inching towards 90% and case numbers relatively stable, restrictions are now being eased.
The Government has said that from today, attendance at work for specific business requirements may commence on a phased and staggered basis.
However, employers will have to continue to abide by the Work Safely Protocols, including maintaining two-metre distancing between staff, wearing masks in certain circumstances and ensuring adequate ventilation and hygiene measures are in place.
In many cases this means that pre-pandemic office capacity will have to be curtailed for the moment at least, with staff taking turns to come in and using hot desks while present.
Where the distancing requirements cannot be maintained, employers will have to adopt work-around measures, such as screens and partitioned areas.
The Health and Safety Authority is to continue to be the lead agency around workplace compliance with the protocols, and it and other State agencies will continue to carry out inspections.
Also today, organised indoor group activities such as for sport, arts, culture and dance, can take place with capacity limits of 100 people where everyone is fully vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19 in the last six months.
In circumstances where those attending have mixed immunity, pods of up to six participants will be permitted, excluding adult leaders and teachers.
Multiple pods will be allowed subject to protective measures, with the number of pods dependent on the size of venue and substantial social distance between each one.
Restrictions on outdoor group activities are also to be removed from today.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said: “Today marks another significant, and welcome, milestone for Ireland as we continue to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This progress has been made possible by the continued and consistent hard work of the Irish people, and the exceptional progress of a national vaccination programme that has fully vaccinated over 90% of the adult population.
“Of course, we cannot let our guard down, and we all have a part to play in protecting our hospitals and most vulnerable.
“In the coming weeks, the Government will announce how we intend to mark the sacrifice and efforts of frontline workers in the fight against Covid-19.
“We will ask too how we can best honour and commemorate all those who lost their lives in this terrible and unprecedented pandemic.”
Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Leo Varadkar, said it would be a big day for thousands of businesses.
“It has been an incredibly challenging 18 months for those running indoor activities,” he said.
“Business owners have had to make huge changes to their business, from moving outdoors to moving online. Your efforts to date have doubtless saved lives.”
But Mr Varadkar said the Government really wants to see remote working become a permanent fixture of Irish working life.
“I hope employers are speaking to their staff to figure out what works best for them and the business as this phased return begins,” he said.
CIPD Ireland, the representative body for HR professionals, said for many workers the return to the workplace will be like starting a new job.
“In the coming weeks they will have to cope with changes to the work practices they’ve adopted while working from home during the last year,” said CIPD Director, Mary Connaughton.
“It’s another round of upheaval, albeit on a planned basis – and it should be acknowledged and thoughtfully dealt with.”
Vaccination status will remain a tricky issue for many employers because vaccination is not mandatory and it is not permissible for businesses to ask their staff what their vaccination status is.
The Irish Men’s Sheds Association will welcome back members after being shut during the pandemic.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning, CEO Enda Egan said there are concerns that around 55 sheds would not reopen, due to financial pressures and health issues meaning some members are no longer available to participate, while newer sheds have lost the leadership and momentum during lockdowns.
He said that before the pandemic around 2% of members reported being lonely, and this rose to almost 40% during the pandemic.