By Padraic Halpin and Graham Fahy
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland significantly tightened its nationwide coronavirus restrictions on Tuesday to try to rein in a surge in cases, urging everyone to restrict visitors to their homes, avoid public transport and older people to limit their contacts.
A spike in cases over the last three weeks, after Ireland had one of Europe's lowest infection rates for several weeks, pushed its 14-day cumulative cases per 100,000 of population to 26, and led to the first local lockdown last week.
The 190 new cases on Tuesday, the second highest daily rise since early May, took the rate of growth in the last two weeks to the fourth highest in Europe and meant infections would inevitably spread to the most vulnerable if it continued, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said.
"We are at another critical moment," Martin told a news conference, saying the new measures would stay in place until at least Sept. 13.
Ireland has adopted one of the most cautious approaches in Europe in fighting the virus, reopening its economy at a slower pace and keeping many restrictions in place for longer.
The government has already twice-delayed the final phase of its reopening plan that would allow nightclubs and all pubs to open, having sped up the plan in June when cases began to fall.
As well as cutting to six the number of visitors allowed in a home - where most clusters have occurred - outdoor gatherings are being restricted to 15 people from 200, with all fans banned from sport. Police will get greater powers to enforce the rules.
Restaurants and pubs that serve food can stay open. Martin said the aim of the restrictions was to make sure key parts of the economy kept trading and schools could reopen for the first time since March.
While the number of hospitalisations has only risen slightly, with eight confirmed cases in intensive care, just 33 - or 8% - of the country's public critical care beds were empty as of Monday, the Health Service Executive said.
The health minister of Northern Ireland, which shares an open land border with the Irish republic, also warned on Tuesday that the British-run region was at a "critical juncture" and that local or general restrictions may need to be considered.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin and Graham Fahy; Editing by Chris Reese and Mark Potter)