Ireland is to extend its third coronavirus lockdown until April 5 but will partially reopen schools from March 1, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said on Tuesday.
The country of five million people had managed to fend off the virus relatively well until December, but has since seen cases soar, particularly due to the spread of the highly contagious British variant.
This accounts for up to 90% of new infections in Ireland, the Taioseach said in a televised statement.
The variant had changed the dynamic in a significant manner and there was a need to be very careful, he said.
The people of Ireland have been locked down since the end of December, the third confinement since the start of the pandemic. They have been told to stay at home, while non-essential shops, pubs and restaurants are closed. Schools remained closed after the Christmas holidays.
The partial reopening of schools should allow classes to resume for 320,000 children.
For now, 350,000 vaccine doses have been administered in Ireland, but the prime minister has promised that more than 80% of eligible adults will have received at least one dose by the beginning of July.
The country, which has now recorded 4,181 deaths from COVID-19 according to latest figures, had witnessed a relatively low number of cases and deaths during the first two waves of the pandemic.
But an easing of restrictions over Christmas saw an explosion in the number of cases, so much so that in the first week of January Ireland had the highest infection rate in the world, according to figures compiled by Oxford University.
Around 45% of the country’s deaths from the virus have occurred since the New Year.