Ireland will begin its journey to a new normal after another two weeks of the current coronavirus restrictions, Leo Varadkar has announced.
The majority of the lockdown measures will remain in place until May 18, although 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.
The Taoiseach said that in mid-May a phased easing of the remaining restrictions would begin.
“So on the 18th of May, Ireland begins to reopen and begins that journey to a new normal,” Mr Varadkar said in an address to the nation from Government Buildings in Dublin.
Mr Varadkar, in a later interview on RTE, said advice on wearing face masks or coverings in shops and public transport would be issued when the plan began to roll out on May 18.
During the national address, the Taoiseach said there would be five stages, three weeks apart, with the fifth phase scheduled to commence on August 10 if everything goes to plan.
But he later stressed it was 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.
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.
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 but pubs are not due to reopen until phase five.
Phase four (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 (August 10).
Mr Varadkar expressed hope that the show-piece All-Ireland GAA finals could go ahead this autumn, albeit behind closed doors.
“I suppose there’s a possibility of an All-Ireland this year, obviously that’s a matter for the GAA,” he told RTE. “Not with spectators, but it could be done.”
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 (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.
The plans were agreed by Cabinet after medical experts on the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) provided advice to the Government earlier on Friday.
The current lockdown period had been due to expire on Monday.
Health Minister Simon Harris said the recommendations of Nphet had been accepted “in full”.
During his address, Mr Varadkar said there was a need for two more weeks of “tight restrictions” before the first of the five phases could commence.
Mr Varadkar said while thousands of lives had been saved “we have not yet won this fight”.
He added: “We need two more weeks of tight restrictions to weaken the virus further, so it doesn’t have the strength to make a comeback when we start to interact with each other once again.”
He said the last few weeks had transformed people’s lives “in so many different ways and ways that we could not have imagined”.
The total number of people who have died from Covid-19 in Ireland rose to 1,265 on Friday, after another 34 deaths were announced.
There have been 20,833 confirmed cases of the disease.
The Taoiseach said while the first wave had been flattened the risk of a second wave was present. He said the country may need to return to tighter restrictions if the virus started to surge again.
“It will take some time for our lives to get back to normal, to a new normal, but it will happen,” he said.
Mr Varadkar said the Cabinet will meet on Saturday to agree further actions to help businesses restart, reconnect and rehire staff who have been laid off or furloughed.
He described the disease as “cruel and inhuman”.
“However the stories I am hearing every day are stories of human kindness,” he added.
Mr Varadkar spoke of the pain for families unable to properly grieve for all those who had lost their lives in recent weeks.
“When we come through this we will come together as a nation and grieve together for everyone who has died over the course of this emergency,” he said.
He said all the personal stories of loss and hardship had formed a “tapestry of struggle and sacrifice and sorrow”.
“It has been worthwhile, it is working, so let’s finish what we started,” said the Taoiseach.