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Saturday 30 September 2023 Dublin: 9°C Taoiseach Micheal Martin
# Decision time
The Taoiseach says we 'weren't ready' for Level 5 two weeks ago, the question is are we now?
Michael Martin will meet Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan about that very question later today.

WHEN THE STAKES are as high as they are right now there is little need for any overstatement, the facts usually speak for themselves.

This is something Taoiseach Micheál Martin clearly appreciates as he ponders the biggest decision he has faced as Taoiseach, and quite possibly the biggest decision he will ever face as Taoiseach.

Hours after it became public that NPHET had again recommended the country move to Level 5, Martin was in Brussels telling reporters that “the situation is very serious”.

He isn’t wrong. The government now faces the prospect of a virtual economic shutdown of the country for the second time in seven months. This time just nine weeks out from Christmas, and at a point where societal cohesion is nowhere near where it was in the spring.

Businesses around the country hoping that this annus horribilis would at least end with the usual festive spending spree would also be left disappointed. At least until December, but even that can’t be guaranteed.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar articulated this concern yesterday, repeatedly saying that ‘an exit strategy’ is vital to any second lockdown.

To be clear about what it entails for a second, Level 5 would mean only essential workers travelling into work and only essential retail outlets staying open. And that’s just for starters.

The Minister for Education has been clear about the government’s “absolute determination” that the schools would stay open. Teaching unions may still need some convincing, however.

The Taoiseach seemed to reiterate the government’s conviction on this yesterday, stating that NPHET’s advice was based on two priorities: protecting the vulnerable and keeping children in school.

“I agree with NPHET in terms of the priorities we all share,” he said.

There is little doubt that there will be a reluctance to pull the trigger on Level 5, with the Taoiseach himself warning it could mean some businesses shutting for good.

Significantly, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe will be present at today’s meeting between Martin, Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan.

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath will be there too and the Cabinet Covid-19 Committee will also be convened.  

Understandably given his brief, Donohoe has been among the most strident in outlining the potential economic cost of moving to Level 5.

Last week he delivered a stark assessment of what it would mean for jobs, with McGrath pitching in to say the PUP cost €200 million-a-week during the first lockdown.

For his part, Varadkar has been able to paint himself as a Level 5 sceptic, or at least a reluctant adoptee.

If the overall situation wasn’t so serious, it’d perhaps be worthy of more comment how the Tánaiste has managed to be both the face of the first shutdown and a questioner of a potential second.

If the response to Covid is the political question of our time, Varadkar has managed to have his foot in both camps.

Two weeks ago he told Claire Byrne Live that NPHET ”hadn’t thought through” its first  Level 5 recommendation. Yesterday, Varadkar returned to that same language but carefully avoided mentioning Tony Holohan and co directly.

“A move to Level 5 has to be thought through, not just the public health implications but all the other implications as well,” he said.

On the opposition side, Sinn Féin has focused on calling on the government to make a decision one way or another. “That means that they need to meet now,” Mary Lou McDonald said yesterday.

Labour’s Alan Kelly seemed to want to find a middle-ground, advocating that the whole country go to Level 4.

If Martin does decide to follow NPHET’s advice after rejecting it a fortnight ago, he’ll also be going against some influential members of his own party.

Outspoken backbench TDs Jim O’Callaghan and Barry Cowen have both come out against a move to Level 4 or 5, with Cowen tweeting that we shouldn’t be “running and hiding from Covid”.

O’Callaghan wasn’t quite so informal in his dismissal of the advice, but stated that another lockdown “isn’t a valid option”.

The Dublin South TD has been vocal in advocating that the government should make its own decisions when it comes to Covid, telling that NPHET’s advice shouldn’t be “blindly followed”.

Of course, for now at least, O’Callaghan can speak with the luxury of not actually having to make any of those decisions himself.

Advocating a different course is one thing, but the reality of leading a country at the present moment and not in the future is that you have to deal with the right now.

For Martin and his coalition partners, they are faced with the reality of a virus that is right now spreading out of control. That same situation was presented to them two weeks ago but, according to the Taoiseach’s own words from his Wednesday’s address, “we simply weren’t ready” for Level 5.

A fortnight on, the question is are we now?

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