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Monday 11 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C
Julien Behal Photography Tánaiste Leo Varadkar (file photo)

'I urge you to use common sense': Praise and criticism in public's emails to Leo during start of lockdown

Correspondence sent to Varadkar shows how the public reacted to the crisis in its initial weeks.

ACCESS TO CHILDCARE, employment issues and the speed of the government’s response were among the concerns raised with the Taoiseach by members of the public during the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Correspondence sent to the office of Leo Varadkar, seen by, reveals how ordinary individuals reacted to the health crisis as a nationwide shutdown took hold.

Emails to the then-Taoiseach included calls to close the country’s borders, a request for stronger messaging about coughing and sneezing on public transport, and a demand to stop allowing the US military to use Shannon Airport.

A sample of emails, released under the Freedom of Information Act, also shows that some people contacted Varadkar to praise the government for its handling of the crisis.

However, a significant number revealed the wide range of worries felt by ordinary citizens during the shutdown earlier this year.

Initial emails in early March expressed concerns that the government was not doing enough to respond to the threat of Covid-19.

“The secrecy with which the HSE has dealt with the coronavirus is mind-boggling,” one person wrote on 2 March, three days after the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Ireland.

“Their approach against the openness in Singapore shows how little understanding they have of the public and their contempt for the public.”

Days later, on 6 March, healthcare workers returning from high risk areas were told not to go to work and nursing homes sought to ban visitors.

But the same day, another person wondered if the government was still too slow to respond to some issues.

“I am urging you to use common sense to cancel Italian flights coming in this week and to postpone Paddy’s Day celebrations,” they said, a day before the by-then cancelled Six Nations game between Ireland and Italy was scheduled to take place.

“Anyone who contracts this due to lack of actions will have this government to blame. We cannot use a ‘wait and see approach’.”

On 10 March, when total the number of Covid-19 cases in Ireland passed 30, there were increasing concerns about the spread of the virus in the community.

But no formal decisions to close down the country had been made by the government, and the Department of Education was still saying that it wouldn’t be ordering primary and secondary schools to close.

That day, another person questioned the speed at which the government was acting, saying:

This government is continually waiting too long to make the decisions it needs to make. The country wants you to shut it down. We need to stop flights. This needs drastic measures. The Government needs to lead!
The first recorded death related to Covid-19 was confirmed the following day, while the day after that, the Taoiseach told the public that schools, colleges and childcare facilities would shut until 29 March

Employment difficulties

As case numbers rose and the country shut down in the weeks that followed, the public’s concerns – as expressed to Varadkar’s office – became more specific.

Many people expressed concerns about money, or a lack of opportunities to work.

On 3 April, one person asked whether the weekly payment for lone parents could be increased by €50, following the introduction of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment.

“This is a hard time for everybody,” they said. “I know the country can’t afford it, but children need it.”

Later in the month, a Leaving Certificate student contacted Varadkar about how the decision to postpone the State exams until later in the summer would impact their employment opportunities.

“I had planned to get a job to provide for myself when in college. This plan is completely ruined now,” they said.

“The idea of having very little of my own money fills me with worry and dread for the college year ahead. I think it’s extremely unfair to have to rely on our parents for every cent we need.”

In May, one individual on the government’s Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme – who was set to go back to work in Phase Two – told the Taoiseach that they would likely have to leave their job because of their situation.

The person explained that their husband was an essential worker, and that they had no childcare options for their children, while their employer was not allowing them to take any parental or unpaid leave.

“I’m 17 years with the company, and I feel they are taking advantage,” they said.

“I will have no choice but to terminate my contract, leaving me with no income. I will not be allowed to sign on for nine weeks either. What am I meant to do?”

Not engaging with measures

Earlier in the crisis, some also contacted Varadkar to complain about how the general public were not engaging with measures to stop the virus from spreading. 

On 11 March, the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic and the the Taoiseach was less than 24 hours from giving his speech from Washington. 

But one individual wrote to express their “extreme concern and anxiety” about people coughing, yawning, sneezing and spitting on public transport.

“Clearly the Minister for Transport has done nothing to heighten the public’s awareness of the dangers of these careless habits,” the person said.

“I therefore appeal to the minister and his officials to please put in place public announcements at all Dart stations, and on the trains and buses, alerting people to the dangers of sneezing, coughing, yawning and spitting without covering their mouths.”

A few days later, another person contacted the Taoiseach to say that they felt that others were not adhering to two-metre social distancing guidelines.

In an email on 16 March, the individual suggested the government should close down all businesses except for food suppliers, pharmacies and petrol stations.

“I got abuse from someone on a WhatsApp school forum for saying that people shouldn’t be going on play dates and staying in their immediate family unit,” they said.

“This only works if everyone plays their part. From my experience, some people are taking it very seriously, others not.”

One week later, another “terrified” person also complained about groups gathering in public and called for a “full lockdown”.

“I have only left the house to go to do a grocery shop or pharmacy, and I can tell you now people are getting complacent,” they wrote on 23 March, the day before the government announced that all non-essential shops were to close.

“Kids are out playing in groups and teenagers in the street. People are congregating in the middle of pathways chatting.

“I know you didn’t want to take this authoritarian approach, but I think this is necessary and we will all understand it even though it will call everything to a halt. Best to get it over with now and get on with it than stagger this any longer.”

Government praised

However, a number of others got in touch with the Taoiseach’s office to praise how the government was managing the crisis.

On 13 March, a day after his speech in Washington, a member of the public praised Varadkar for “taking responsibility”.

“Thank God we have such a good and kind person taking charge. It really is reassuring to know you are at the helm,” they said.

Later that month, another person who claimed they were a Fianna Fáil voter said they were “hugely grateful” to the Taoiseach for how the situation was being handled.

“As the mother of a very vulnerable child you are not to underestimate my gratitude,” they wrote on 23 March.

“You put Boris Johnson and Donald Trump to shame. Keep doing what you’re doing!”

And another person suggested Varadkar had encouraged Irish society to respond to the pandemic in a way that brought out the best in people.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint and there will be loss, grief, financial implications,” they said.

“We will bounce back. The kindness, generosity, humour, dedication and decency is in people. Your decisive action, however, set the context that made it all more likely.”

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