Ireland imposes some of Europe's toughest COVID-19 curbs
By Padraic Halpin and Graham Fahy
DUBLIN, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Ireland announced some of Europe's toughest COVID-19 constraints on Monday, shutting non-essential retail, limiting restaurants and pubs to take away service and telling people not to travel more than five kilometres (3 miles) from their home.
Ireland imposed one of Europe's longest lockdowns during the first surge in cases and eased restrictions at such a cautious pace that pubs that only serve drinks in Dublin had not reopened by the time a rise in infections prompted a tightening of curbs.
This time schools will stay open and essential services such as construction are allowed to continue, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said as he moved the country to the highest level of restrictions, Level 5, for six weeks from midnight Wednesday.
Hotels may remain open, but only if their rooms are needed by essential workers.
"In the effort to suppress the virus, we've already introduced what is probably Europe's strictest regime," Martin said in a televised address, two weeks after rejecting what was then seen as a surprise call by health chiefs to move to Level 5, the first time ministers went against their advice.
"The government has decided that the evidence of a potentially grave situation arising in the weeks ahead is now too strong."
While countries struggling with high rates of infection like Belgium, the Netherlands and France have shut bars, restaurants and imposed a nighttime curfew, none have such strict travel restrictions within the country.
Harder hit Northern Ireland last week shut schools for two weeks and restaurants for four, although most retailers remain open. In Wales, people have been asked to stay at home in a two-week "fire-break" lockdown announced on Monday.
On Sunday, Ireland broke its record for the number of cases recorded in a single day for the fifth time in nine days, and has the 12th highest rate among the 31 countries monitored by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
The number of COVID-19 patients has also doubled in the past two weeks but stands at less than half the peak in April.
To cushion the blow, the government will increase the amount it contributes to coronavirus-related jobless payments and wage subsidies. Last week's budget, the biggest stimulus package in the history of the state, introduced much larger grants of up to 5,000 euros ($5,884.50) per week for shuttered or battered businesses.
Data on Monday showed the number of people claiming COVID-19 jobless payments has risen by 20% to 244,153 in the last two weeks. Government estimates show that 100,000 to 127,000 more could be laid off temporarily under Level 5.
The jobless rate, including those on the emergency payment, stood at 14.7% last month. The finance ministry forecast that the economy could contract again next year if there is a prolonged period of stringent restrictions.
($1 = 0.8497 euros)
(Writing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Hugh Lawson)
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