By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland must act now to prevent a damaging return to lockdown, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said on Monday after rejecting a surprise recommendation by his health chiefs to shut down the economy immediately and opting instead to tighten COVID-19 restrictions.
The National Public Health Emergency Team called late on Sunday for a leap to the highest level of coronavirus curbs, Level 5, having told the government as recently as Thursday the current Level 2 status for most of the country was appropriate.
Ministers faced sharp political and business resistance to what would have amounted to Europe's first major second-wave national lockdown and chose to move the whole country to Level 3, going against their health chiefs' advice for the first time.
"What happens next is in our own hands," Martin said in a televised address, saying some businesses may not be able to recover from a disproportionate reimposition of more severe restrictions.
"It's about protecting lives and livelihoods. ... If we all act now, we can stop the need to introduce Level 4 and 5 restrictions."
Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, Ireland's prime minister during the first lockdown, went further and said the advice was not thought through, would have amounted to an "experiment" not tried elsewhere in Europe and that the body in charge of Ireland's hospitals disagreed with the health chiefs' capacity concerns.
"Three very good reasons to say not yet," Varadkar told RTE, the national broadcaster.
Under Level 5, people would have been asked to stay at home, except to exercise within 5 km (3 miles), with only essential retailers allowed to stay open - broadly similar to the initial seven-week lockdown that was among the longest imposed in Europe.
All indoor restaurant dining is banned under Level 3, which has applied in the capital, Dublin, and the northwest county of Donegal for the past two weeks. Pubs can serve a limited number of customers outdoors with the exception of Dublin, where bars that only serve drinks have yet to be allowed to reopen.
Those tighter local restrictions have kept the unemployment rate just below 15%.
While Ireland reported the highest number of daily cases since late April on Saturday and a similar number on Monday, its 14-day cumulative case total of 104 per 100,000 people is only the 14th highest infection rate among 31 European countries monitored by the European Centre for Disease Control.
But a health official who advised a lockdown said that with one of the lowest intensive-care unit (ICU) capacities among the advanced economies of the OECD, Ireland may run out of ICU beds in a month on the current trajectory.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Peter Cooney)