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Fine Gael 'treads carefully', but Fianna Fáil is eager to fast-track reopening of the country

Senior figures in Fianna Fáil have been questioning some of the guidelines this week.

Image: Niall Carson
OVER THE LAST number of weeks, if you spoke out against the government roadmap or the recommendations by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), you were accused of “rubbishing the experts’ opinion”. 

That is the dominant view within the Fianna Fáil party this week – in fact, sources say the parliamentary party have been raising concerns from as far back as March.

In a speech to the Dáil that month, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said opposition parties have been “privately” making suggestions to government. He said there was an approach seeking to limit public disagreements.

“There is a fine balance to be struck between supporting a common message to the public and maintaining space for asking tough questions and pointing to areas where more action may be required,” he said.

Martin also said in March there was a need to create a space for debate and for challenging messages.

“Everyone being on the same side does not remove the need to ask questions.”

So, if government formation talks are agreed and wound up by the end of next week, and if a new government is in place by the end of June, will the pace of lifting the restrictions be a sticking point among the parties in power if there is no change?

Yes it will, according to the Fianna Fáil consensus. If the party enters into government, most of its TDs want to open up the economy much faster than what is set out in the roadmap.

As one Fianna Fáil TD put it this week:

We’ll be in [power] in a couple of weeks, and we’ll reopen the economy, much faster. We have to.”

Another added that Health Minister Simon Harris’ blithe acceptance of the advice from the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan was concerning, adding that to question the advice was seen as “taboo” in the last number of weeks.

While some Fine Gael ministers, as well as the Taoiseach, have been described as “cautious” there is pressure – both inside and outside of government – to scrap travel limits, the two metre social distancing rule, as well as to fast-track the opening of some businesses by 29 June.

The push to expedite matters has been coming from the top of the Fianna Fáil party too.

This week, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin as well as another senior member of the party, Jim O’Callaghan have spoken out against a number of the measures in the phased re-lifting of the lockdown. 

On Wednesday, Martin said “there is no remaining serious justification for the five- kilometre limit”.

“The public health concern is how people behave around others – not how far they are from their home. In fact, the research shows that this limit may in fact be forcing people in urban areas into more crowded situations.”

He added that he is also not in agreement with the 20km limit, which is set out in Phase Two, where people are allowed to travel 20km from their home.

Martin raised concerns about retailers, and why some are open and others are not.

“Equally the current distinctions between different types of shop are at best arbitrary. Supermarkets have been open throughout the pandemic while implementing measures about distancing and hygiene.

“The figures on community spread suggest that the supermarkets have not played a role in spreading the virus – where the overwhelming issue is clustering in health facilities, nursing homes and some workplaces like meat factories,” he said.

Last weekend, The Sunday Times reported that supermarkets Aldi and Lidl are reporting that around 20 staff members between the two retailers contracted coronavirus, out of workforce of about 9,000.

The latest figures show that the number of patients in hospitals with Covid-19 continues to fall and now is at 193. The number of patients in ICU with confirmed Covid-19 now stands at 45. It was 70 when the lockdown was introduced.

A total of 22,089 people are now recovered from the virus, and only 1,083 people are sick in Ireland at the moment with the virus.

Following Martin’s speech in the Dáil, O’Callaghan took up the baton from his party leader, asking who was in charge. He also called for a faster easing of the restrictions.

“No matter what we do, there will be risks,” he said, stating that everyone recognised in March that it was absolutely essential that Ireland closes down to protect intensive care units, hospitals and citizens from the surges that occurred in Italy and subsequently in Spain.  

“Now, however, we are in the fortunate position where the number of cases, of deaths and people in intensive care are in decline. Up to now, all our decisions have been made on the exclusive basis of public health requirements. Public health should still predominate,” he said, asking that the Cabinet also consider other factors when deciding how we progress out of the lockdown.  

“It is important to note that the National Public Health Emergency Team has placed great, indeed sole, emphasis on health issues but it is the Cabinet which is responsible for providing a direction for this country to lead us out of the lockdown.  

“We cannot have a situation where executive governmental responsibility is subcontracted out to NPHET,” said O’Callaghan.

The view is echoed by other TDs in the party, such as Sligo–Leitrim TD Marc MacSharry, who said: 

I live in Sligo and we are on our 12th day without a case in Sligo. Leitrim is on its eighth day without a case of Covid-19. The government have to be realistic about that.”

MacSharry said a plan for schools is needed now, adding that the science doesn’t support the idea that children cannot return to school as normal.

Everyone wants a vaccine to be found, he said, but added that if one isn’t found, society will have to live with the virus.

“If the virus re-emerges, I don’t think we could countenance another lockdown,” he said.

“Personally, I think we should open everything on the 29 June,” he said.

If there are concerns about a full-scale reopening of the country, MacSharry suggests that there be pilot projects in places like Sligo, Leitrim and  Kerry, where the cases have been low.

The two-metre social distancing rule and whether to reduce it to one metre is a bone of contention, even for some in government. 

Education Minister Joe McHugh said schools could not return as normal with the two-metre rule in place, while Junior Minister John Halligan also questioned why Ireland has a two-metre rule when most other EU countries have a one or 1.5-metre rule.

“That will go down to one metre if we go in with Fine Gael, there is too much at risk if we don’t reduce it,” said one Fianna Fáiler.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has indicated that the issue will be looked at if the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths continues to fall.

“There has to be calculated risk taken, and people have to use a bit of cop-on and common sense. The government have to get with the programme. We’re either open or we’re not,” said MacSharry.

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When asked if this will be one of the first contentious issues the new government might have to contend with, he said talks appear to be going well and progress is being made. He added that “irrespective of whether it is the outgoing or the incoming government, this will have to be dealt with as a matter of urgency”.

When asked on Friday whether a push to accelerate the roadmap to reopening the economy by his potential partners in government will cause difficulties in the weeks ahead, Varadkar said the government will continue to tread carefully.

He said everyone wants to speed-up the reopening, but added:

“I have to caution that … if we do that, we have to do that based on data and us being sure that it is safe to do so. We only eased restrictions on May 18 and if for some reason that has caused the virus to start spreading rapidly again, then we won’t know that until next week.

“Making any decision today about accelerating the reopening of the country would be premature and risky. It is only something we can consider next Friday when we have data to see if the restrictions eased have caused the virus to propagate again.

“I think the worse thing we can do is to reopen businesses and then two or three weeks later have to close them again. I would rather have a slow and steady plan rather than accelerate it unsafely and end up having to lock down again.

“Nothing would do more damage to economic confidence and national morale if we told people it was safe to reopen, then a few weeks later tell them it is not.”

However, disquiet over the phased reopening of the economy has even been raised around the Cabinet table, with some sources stating the expediting of some measures will most likely be fast-tracked, depending on the trajectory of the figures. 

Varadkar said on Friday that progress has been made in the government formation talks between the Green Party, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, stating that compromise will have to be found on the more “contentious” issues.

The Taoiseach says he hopes a programme for government can be finished by the end of next week to allow a new government to be in place by the end of June.

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