Coronavirus: Ireland to begin lifting lockdown restrictions

Ireland will potentially ease stay-at-home restrictions and allow some shops to reopen in the coming weeks as part of a step-by-step scaling back of the country's coronavirus lockdown, a senior health official said on Friday.

Irish Health Minister, Simon Harris, has said he expects to be advised on Friday to keep the current restrictions in place for "a period of weeks" after citizens were ordered late last month to stay home until at least Sunday.

Prior to that, Ireland had banned all non-essential travel within the country and shut clubs, gyms, and hairdressers. Other retailers like DIY stores were allowed to remain open and people could travel beyond the current 2-km radius limit from their house and visit family, once they maintained social distancing.

"We are conscious of the fact that the restrictions are very difficult for people and not sustainable in the long term," Cillian De Gascun, chair of the coronavirus expert advisory group, told national broadcaster RTE.

"What we would hope to do is be able to lift those, within the next perhaps couple of weeks... I think what we would like to try and do is offer people a bit more movement outside the house, there may be an opportunity to open more of the retail services closed formally a couple of weeks back. In essence, it would be looking in reverse from how they were implemented."

Confirmed cases in Ireland rose to 6,574 on Thursday, with 263 deaths, but the average day-on-day case growth has fallen to 9% from 15% a week ago and officials said a stabilization in intensive care admissions was encouraging.

De Gascun reiterated the view of many of the top officials advising government that the growth rate of new cases needs to drop to zero alongside a continued fall in the reproductive rate - the number of people who become infected from each positive case - before restrictions can be eased.

Officials have said testing and contact tracing also need to be scaled up first. De Gascun, who is the head of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, said he expected testing capacity to increase dramatically over next 7-10 days.