Ireland is “rapidly approaching” a scenario where the “phased reopening” of schools is possible, Professor Philip Nolan has said.
He said the number of cases of Covid-19 could drop to 200 to 400 cases a day by the end of February if the current progress in tackling the virus was maintained.
But Prof Nolan, of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), also warned “that there is still a long way to go”.
Speaking on RTÉ’s This Week, he said: “That is still a pretty high level of disease.”
But he added: “It will allow us to do certain things perhaps.”
Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the same programme there were “no specific timelines yet” for school reopening, as he acknowledged there was a need to get the Covid-19 numbers down.
Meanwhile, talks are continuing between the Department of Education and the education partners about arrangements for a phased reopening, starting with special schools and pupils in special classes in mainstream primary schools and other educationally disadvantaged pupils.
Efforts to achieve this last month collapsed because of concerns among teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) about going back to school when Covid-19 infection rates were so high.
Prof Nolan said: “We are coming off a very large wave, one so large I don’t think any of us anticipated a wave of disease that big.
“On the good news side of things, what we proved over the past four weeks, is something that we knew: that the basic public health measures reducing contacts, social distance, hygiene – they work against the new variant.
“You just have to work harder at it to prevent viral transmission, and we have done that. I am optimistic about where we will go in March, April, May and June, because I think we have learned significant lessons from December.”
“If we are cautious, I think there are certain high-priority, lower-risk things that we can do in March, April, May, that will allow us some opening up without a significant increase in the transmission of the virus.”
In relation to schools reopening, he said it was important to realise that schools in their entirety remained open through the October surge of cases.
“I think we are rapidly approaching the point at which a cautious and phased reopening of education would be feasible,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said there was a need to resource regional public health departments to ensure that “when we do get down to much lower levels of disease, that they have the resources available”.