* Government rejected health chiefs Level 5 call two weeks
* Schools, construction to stay open unlike first lockdown
* Economy could contract again in 2021 if curbs prolonged
(Adds details from PM's address)
By Padraic Halpin and Graham Fahy
DUBLIN, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Ireland announced some of
Europe's toughest COVID-19 constraints on Monday, shutting
non-essential retail, limiting restaurants and pubs to take away
service and telling people not to travel more than five
kilometres (3 miles) from their home.
Ireland imposed one of Europe's longest lockdowns during the
first surge in cases and eased restrictions at such a cautious
pace that pubs that only serve drinks in Dublin had not reopened
by the time a rise in infections prompted a tightening of curbs.
This time schools will stay open and essential services such
as construction are allowed to continue, Prime Minister Micheal
Martin said as he moved the country to the highest level of
restrictions, Level 5, for six weeks from midnight Wednesday.
Hotels may remain open, but only if their rooms are needed
by essential workers.
"In the effort to suppress the virus, we've already
introduced what is probably Europe's strictest regime," Martin
said in a televised address, two weeks after rejecting what was
then seen as a surprise call by health chiefs to move to Level
5, the first time ministers went against their advice.
"The government has decided that the evidence of a
potentially grave situation arising in the weeks ahead is now
While countries struggling with high rates of infection like
Belgium, the Netherlands and France have shut bars, restaurants
and imposed a nighttime curfew, none have such strict travel
restrictions within the country.
Harder hit Northern Ireland last week shut schools for two
weeks and restaurants for four, although most retailers remain
open. In Wales, people have been asked to stay at home in a
two-week "fire-break" lockdown announced on Monday.
On Sunday, Ireland broke its record for the number of cases
recorded in a single day for the fifth time in nine days, and
has the 12th highest rate among the 31 countries monitored by
the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
The number of COVID-19 patients has also doubled in the past
two weeks but stands at less than half the peak in April.
To cushion the blow, the government will increase the amount
it contributes to coronavirus-related jobless payments and wage
subsidies. Last week's budget, the biggest stimulus package in
the history of the state, introduced much larger grants of up to
5,000 euros ($5,884.50) per week for shuttered or battered
Data on Monday showed the number of people claiming COVID-19
jobless payments has risen by 20% to 244,153 in the last two
weeks. Government estimates show that 100,000 to 127,000 more
could be laid off temporarily under Level 5.
The jobless rate, including those on the emergency payment,
stood at 14.7% last month. The finance ministry forecast that
the economy could contract again next year if there is a
prolonged period of stringent restrictions.
($1 = 0.8497 euros)
(Writing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Hugh