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Ministers and senior officials will meet this afternoon for crucial talks on the Leaving Certificate, efforts to restart classes for children with special educational needs and the likely timetable for reopening the State’s schools.

There was a growing expectation ahead of the Cabinet committee on education’s meeting that Leaving Cert students will be offered a choice between sitting their exams in June or being awarded calculated grades.

A final decision could be made at tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting, though sources said it could also be delayed until the end of the week.

There is rising optimism in Government that special education could reopen next week, though this is contingent on the agreement of trade unions.

Prof Philip Nolan, head of modelling for the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), yesterday said Ireland was moving “rapidly towards the point at which the cautious and phased reopening of education would be feasible”.

Senior Government sources said they believed that if the rate of Covid-19 infections continues to fall in line with current trends, the phased reopening of schools should begin in early March. Taoiseach Micheál Martin suggested yesterday there would be a “phased return to school commencing at primary”.

ConstructionMr Martin also gave some insights into the emerging plans for the reopening of society and the economy when the current lockdown ends on March 5th. He said resuming education and construction were priorities but that wider commercial life was likely to remain closed.

Two senior sources said that non-essential retail was likely to remain closed for several weeks beyond March 5th, while hospitality would remain shut for longer. Both also said that as general restrictions are eased, further curbs are likely to be introduced on incoming air travel, with mandatory quarantine in hotels for all passengers looking increasingly likely.

Meanwhile, the vaccination of older people in the community is expected to start from next week, beginning with those aged 85 and over. People aged over 80 should receive their first dose in mid-February, officials said, while vaccination of the over 70s is expected to begin in early March.

Despite recent controversies over the supply of vaccines to Ireland and other EU countries, sources involved in the Irish rollout are confident that a substantial proportion of the population will be inoculated by the summer.

VaccineEuropean Commission president Ursula von der Leyen last night announced that AstraZeneca had agreed to supply an extra nine million doses of the vaccine in the first quarter, with Ireland to receive 100,000 doses more than expected last week. However, this is still 200,000 fewer than originally expected.

There was continued criticism over the weekend of the commission’s proposed and later halted move to trigger article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol to control the movement of vaccines out of the bloc. Ireland’s European commissioner Mairead McGuinness said the commission’s move was a mistake and had caused justified anger and political fallout.

About 46,000 second doses will be administered this week to frontline healthcare workers and staff and residents of long-term care facilities, the first two priority groups.

Older peopleNext week, it is planned to begin giving the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to older people through their GPs. However, the National Immunisation Advisory Committee is still finalising its recommendations on whether the vaccine should be allowed for use in over-65s.

It is expected to authorise use of the vaccine for this age group, despite a lack of data so far about how effective it is in that group. Should the committee decide against authorisation for older people, they will be given the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines under a fall-back plan developed by officials.