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The goal is now herd immunity, Leo confirms as pubs look to stay shut for foreseeable future

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Tánaiste Leo Varadkar

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar

Ireland is aiming for herd immunity to the coronavirus, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.

But this will happen over a long period of time.

Mr Varadkar said the focus will be to suppress the virus "to such a level that we don't see millions of people getting affected."

The aim remains that "we don't get into the situation whereby our health service and our hospitals are overwhelmed, as we have seen happen in some countries."

After the revelation that New Zealand, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (inset), may have imported the virus in freight, Mr Varadkar, a former health minister, said the strategy "is to slow and minimise the virus to get as close to zero as we can in terms of cases."

But he added it has now proven impossible to prevent outbreaks.

Ireland would aim "to keep it as low level as possible and minimise infections, minimise the risk of our health service being overwhelmed - which we've done successfully - until such time as we develop herd immunity, which will take an extremely long time."

That was "if we continue like this," he said, "but what was more likely was development of a vaccine or an effective treatment for the virus itself."

As to herd immunity, or an effective treatment for the virus, "nobody can predict for sure how long that's going to take," Mr Varadkar said. "But we shouldn't forget how far we've come.

Battle

"Our economy is now largely reopened. Most people are back to work. We can enjoy sports again, if not in person. We can go to restaurants. We can go to work.

"We have come a very long way since March or April, but this is this is going to be a longer haul battle than maybe we anticipated a few months ago."

The British government referred to the development of "herd immunity" at the beginning of the crisis, but dropped the phrase and emulated the Irish model of lockdown.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar said many pubs may be asked "to make a sacrifice for the rest of the country," - raising the prospect they may not open this year.

He said the planned August 31 re-opening of pubs that don't serve food may not happen.

There will be a Cabinet meeting on August 28, he said, striking a pessimistic note on the chances of pubs welcoming customers again. It could be a matter of "saying to the pubs that you have to stay closed or wait longer, that you can't re-open."

In such a case he would like to have a package of financial supports approved by Cabinet for this sector, over and above what it already provided for business by way of grants, subsidies and supports, he said.

Entertainment

But "pubs are not as important as schools," Mr Varadkar said.

"It is already clear that a number of sectors may not be able to open, or reopen at all," Mr Varadkar said, giving as examples the events sector and entertainment industry. Then he threw cold water on the idea that the reopening of pubs will happen as scheduled on August 31. "We don't know yet when the pubs might open. But they will need extra care, extra attention and extra support."

There could have to be a Survival Plan, he said, having spoken to the publicans, which would extend from pubs to theatres, nightclubs and entertainments venues. "We want them to survive. These are areas that are going to need tailored solutions. I want the pubs to open - I go to pubs myself. I want them to be there."