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Country and colleges exit Level 5 for Christmas

After six weeks of Level 5 restrictions, the reopening process of retail, restaurants and other amenities began on December 1st as part of the government’s Safe Christmas Plan. The nation is now operating under Level 3 restrictions with the festive season allowing for a number of exceptions – much of these were against the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

Galleries, museums and cinemas have opened in a departure from the original Level 3 restrictions, as have restaurants and gastro-pubs. Places of worship have reopened with a congregation of 50 people allowed and inter-county travel will be permitted from 18th December for those travelling home for Christmas. From this date, gatherings between up to 3 households can occur in homes and gardens.

The guidance on face masks has also been updated by the government with Taoiseach Micháel Martin announcing that in addition to wearing masks indoors, “people will be asked to also wear their masks outdoors on busy streets, within crowded indoor workplaces and in places of worship.”

This first Christmas with Covid-19 will be different to any before it and the health advice is conscious of this, reminding people to celebrate safely. “Avoid hugs, kisses and handshakes as people arrive,” the guidelines read, “don’t share items like crockery and glassware; avoid sharing food; wear a mask when cooking and serving food.”

It is hoped that such advice will curb the spread of the virus as much as possible during the Christmas season, as another bout of Level 5 restrictions is unlikely to achieve the public buy-in and enthusiasm it would need. Daily case numbers have been cut by 75 per cent since early October, from a peak of around 1,200 to under 300 daily cases – but this falls short of the target public health officials had held of 50-100 cases a day.

The chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has written in a letter to the government that the relaxation of Level 3 restrictions will lead to a difficult scenario in January 2021: “Ireland is in a very precarious position where we are vulnerable to a sudden sharp increase in incidence.” Dr Holohan warned of the impact intergenerational mixing during the Christmas period will have on “our particularly vulnerable” health service due to an increase in hospitalisations and ICU admittance.

Education remains a priority for both NPHET and the Irish government as childcare, primary, and secondary schools continue to operate in accordance with health guidelines until they break for Christmas holidays. Further, higher and adult education institutions such as UCC remain remote during the modified Level 3 period.

Certain campus services such as the library have remained open as essential to education during Level 5 restrictions, but the majority of teaching has continued to occur online as it has since the beginning of Semester 1. UCCSU President Naoise Crowley has welcomed “that UCC is one of the most active campuses in Ireland at present, as well as having the longest opening hours of any library in the country.” Boole Library currently opens from 8am-10.30pm throughout the week, with plans to extend opening hours from 8am-1.30am for the majority of the week in Semester 2. The Students’ Union President has also detailed the SU plans to host a Christmas Market on campus and a new space called the UCC Garden to hold social events when national guidelines allow. The SU President has also, however, pressed the university on the need for clarification about Semester 2, and what it will look like for students.

On December 1st, Interim President John O’Halloran and Interim Registrar Stephen Byrne delivered such clarity in an update sent to all students: “In order to provide some degree of certainty for the New Year, we have made the decision that for now, the next semester will operate in a similar way to Semester 1.”

“Our ambition is to increase in-person teaching and face-to-face activities on campus, should evolving public health guidelines permit it and, if this is the case, we will make every effort to do so.” Interim President and Registrar issued the news with an acknowledgement of the “potential disappointment” such plans may cause for students.

The method of teaching planned for UCC in Semester 2 is aligned with hopes for on-campus, small-group teaching shared by the Irish Universities Association whose Director General Jim Miley said: “Our absolute priority is to try to do whatever possible to improve the student experience at this most difficult time.”