Ireland has recorded its lowest daily coronavirus death toll in almost eight weeks.
The four fatalities announced on Monday came as Ireland began the first phase of its lockdown exit plan. The country’s Covid-19 death toll now stands at 1,547.
Shoppers flocked to garden centres and hardware stores across the country as a number of retail outlets reopened.
Some outdoor work resumed and sports including golf and tennis began to be played again nationwide.
While cautioning of the potential for under-reporting at weekend, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said the drop in fatalities was a sign of progress in suppressing the virus.
Passing condolences to all the families involved, he said only two of the deaths happened over the weekend, with the other two occurring in April.
“On the first day of Ireland moving into phase one of reopening we have experienced the lowest number of deaths since March 27,” he said.
“We have suppressed the virus and limited its impact on public health. We need to sustain this in the weeks and phases ahead.”
Dr Holohan said he was “hopeful” Ireland would be in a position to move to phase two of the lockdown exit plan on schedule in three weeks’ time, but he stressed that it was “too early” to make firm predictions.
There were 88 confirmed cases of Covid-19 announced on Monday – the third day in a row the tally has been below 100. Previously it had been mid March when Ireland last recorded daily totals below 100.
The total number of confirmed cases in Ireland since the outbreak began now stands at 24,200.
People are now able to meet in groups of four in outdoor locations, as long as social distancing is observed, under relaxed new coronavirus guidelines.
Senior Government official Liz Canavan warned that people must remain vigilant and adhere to social-distancing measures.
“As we ease restrictions from today, it’s really important that we are disciplined in keeping to the measures specified,” she said at a briefing on Monday.
“Our ability to move through the phases will depend on sticking with it.”
Ms Canavan urged people not to have a picnic or stay in public amenities for longer than necessary if they are out exercising.
Earlier, Health Minister Simon Harris urged the public to show a “collective sense of cop on” over the coming weeks as Ireland moves from one phase to the next.
Mr Harris told RTE radio: “I’m pleased that we have gotten to this point because of the incredible efforts of the Irish people to suppress this virus.
“I am nervous because the virus has not gone away and there is still people in our country getting very sick and dying every day.”
Those able return to work on Monday included construction workers, gardeners and people tending to allotments.
Garden centres, hardware stores, farmers’ markets, opticians and mechanics also reopened.
Hundreds of golf clubs also reopened their courses.
Hailed as “Christmas Day” for golfers, players flocked to fairways after an eight-week hiatus.
Shaun Donnelly, club professional at Rossmore Golf Club in County Monaghan, said that many of the club’s members have been “ecstatic” to return to the golf course.
Three happy golfers at Rossmore Golf Club in Monaghan this morning. First tee off was at 6am and last is 8pm. â³ï¸ pic.twitter.com/rb0Je5qNMJ— Cate McCurry (@CateMcCurry) May 18, 2020
“There’s been massive enthusiasm, it’s a bit like Christmas Day to a lot of golfers,” he said.
Meanwhile, Declan Ronayne, chief executive of Woodie’s, said stores have gradually been restocked over the last two months as the supply chain has steadily increased.
“It feels like the right time to reopen and we are delighted to do so,” he said.
HSE figures show the virus’s prevalence continues on a downward trajectory.
On Monday there were 51 Covid-19 patients in ICU, down by around 70% from the peak in mid-April when around 160 people were receiving intensive care treatment.
The overall coronavirus hospital admission rate is down by a similar scale.
Around 4,000 tests are currently being completed each day in Ireland and, of those, around 98% are testing negative. The 2% positivity rate is down from 25% in mid-April.
New test and tracing targets are now in operation as the lockdown starts to ease and Ireland now has the capacity to test 100,000 people per week.
A new target is a three-day time frame from the point of test referral to the completion of contact tracing, in 90% of positive cases.
Another is a two-day turnaround from the point of the test swab being taken to the notification of the result.
That means all people tested who return a negative result will be informed of that outcome within 48 hours.
Automation of the notification process is being introduced to speed up the timelines.
As firms reopen over the coming months, employers will have to ensure they adhere to Government guidelines.
Sinn Fein’s Eoin O Broin raised concerns that the Health and Safety Authority has only 67 inspectors to oversee safe working conditions.
“We get one shot at this so it’s very important that we get it right,” the TD said.
“We are not saying we believe there will be widespread flouting of the rules, but if you don’t have an effective enforcement regime that means that a small number of people who feel that they might get away with breaking rules will try and do that.”