The Irish Government has announced a suite of measures to help businesses struggling in the coronavirus emergency.
Multi-euro recovery funds were agreed in a special cabinet meeting the morning after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced a five-stage road map to reopening society.
The measures include a two billion euro pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund and a two billion euro Covid-19 Credit Guarantee Scheme to support lending to SMEs for terms ranging from three months to six years.
A 10,000 euro restart grant for micro and small businesses, a three-month commercial rates waiver for impacted businesses, the “warehousing” of tax liabilities for 12 months after recommencement of trading and a commitment to local authorities to make up the rates shortfall were also announced.
Finance minister Paschal Donohoe said the measures are designed to “minimise the damage” of the pandemic.
“Our collective public health has been targeted; our businesses and our economy have been shouldered with an unimaginable burden; and our society is grappling with this new reality. But, by working together, we are minimising the damage,” he said.
“On top of the measures previously put in place by Government, this suite of measures being outlined today is designed to build confidence, further assist businesses in terms of the management of their companies, and allow them to begin looking to the future and start charting a path forward for weeks and months ahead.”
The Government has already rolled out a multibillion-euro package of assistance for employers and workers during the crisis.
Around 450,000 workers are receiving state payments through a temporary wage subsidy scheme, while around another 600,000 have applied for a special Covid-19 unemployment benefit.
The Government has also significantly expanded financial support for small and medium sized-businesses.
On Friday, Mr Varadkar announced the current lockdown has been extended until May 18, at which point phase one of the “journey to a new normal” will commence.
Each stage is three weeks apart, but the country will only move from one to the other when medical experts confirm it is safe to do so.
The fifth phase is scheduled to commence on August 10 if everything goes to plan.
While the majority of restrictions remain in place for another fortnight, two will ease in the coming days.
From next Tuesday, a travel limit that has forced people to stay within 2km of home when exercising will be extended to 5km, and self-isolating over-70s will be advised they can leave home for a walk or drive.
On May 18, outdoor work, like construction and landscaping, will resume.
Some retail outlets – like garden centres, hardware stores and repair shops – will also reopen.
Mr Varadkar said some outdoor sporting and fitness activities in small groups would also be allowed from that date.
Cafes and restaurants are set to reopen in phase three, which will start on June 29, but pubs are not due to reopen until phase five.
Phase four, which will start on July 20, will see hotels and hairdressers opening for business.
In terms of sport, golf and tennis will be permitted in phase one while close-contact sports such as rugby will have to wait until phase five on August 10.
Mr Varadkar has expressed hope that the show-piece All-Ireland GAA finals could go ahead this autumn, albeit behind closed doors.
In phase one, people outside of the same family unit can meet in groups of no more than four in an outdoor setting.
In phase two, starting June 8, visits to the homes of over-70s and other vulnerable groups will be permitted with strict social distancing and hygiene steps.
The plan does not include any timescale for lifting the cocooning advice.
Mr Varadkar said advice on wearing face masks or coverings in shops and public transport would be issued when the plan begins to roll out on May 18.
Mr Varadkar said schools and colleges will reopen in September/October at the start of the new academic year.
Education authorities are to assess whether Leaving Cert exams for final-year students could go ahead in July in the absence of the wider school population.
Mr Varadkar said it was still the plan for sixth year students to spend two weeks in class ahead of the exams starting.
But he said other options, such as using predictive marking to allocate results, may be needed if sitting the Leaving Certs could not be held safely.
The five phase plan was agreed by Cabinet on the back of advice from experts on the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).
The current lockdown period had been due to expire on Monday.
The Taoiseach has stressed the blueprint is a “living document” and steps outlined in later phases could potentially be implemented sooner.
He also predicted that the two-metre social distancing guidelines could be reduced, potentially by half.
The total number of people who have died from Covid-19 in Ireland rose to 1,286 on Saturday, after another 25 deaths were announced.
A government spokesperson added that the validation of data has resulted in the denotification of four deaths.
As of Saturday, there had been 21,176 confirmed cases of the disease.