DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland will shut restaurants, pubs serving food and some shops from Christmas Eve, less than a month after they emerged from the previous lockdown after health officials warned the country had quickly spiralled into a third wave of COVID-19 infections.
Prime Minister Micheal Martin said there was no evidence that a new, virulent variant of the virus that has isolated neighbouring Britain had reached Ireland, but the safest way forward was to assume it had.
Ireland has one of the lowest incidence rates of COVID-19 in Europe after moving early in October to temporarily shut shops, bars and restaurants. Unlike much of Europe, they have largely been open again during the busy December trading period.
However daily cases were now rising at 10%, Martin said, prompting the government to scrap provisional plans to keep hospitality open until closer to the New Year and move to a modified version of its highest level of restrictions until Jan. 12.
"Unfortunately in the last week we have seen extraordinary growth in the virus. This is the same pattern as we have seen in the United Kingdom and across Europe," Martin told a news conference.
"While we do not yet have firm evidence that the new more virulent strain of the COVID virus is in our country, the rate of growth tells me that the safest and most responsible thing to do is to proceed on the assumption that it is already here."
Families will still get the Christmas Martin promised them a month ago, with three households allowed to mix on Dec. 25, more generous terms than in many other countries. However socialising in homes will be cut to two households in the lead-up to New Year's Eve and banned thereafter.
Unlike the six weeks of tough restrictions from mid-October to early December, retailers like department stores will remain open but asked to defer holiday sales. Gyms will also escape closure this time around.
Hairdressers will be shut while hotels can only be used to accommodate essential workers. Schools and childcare facilities will not be affected.
While analysts believe Irish gross domestic product may in fact grow this year thanks to its large pharmaceutical and tech multinational sector, the shutdown will likely keep the number of people permanently and temporarily unemployed at around 20%.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Alison Williams and Nick Macfie)
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