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FactCheck: No, the Tánaiste did not say lockdown would continue 'indefinitely'

Leo Varadkar was talking about the Zero Covid strategy and mandatory hotel quarantine.

For general Factchecks not about Covid

A CLAIM THAT the Tánaiste said lockdown would continue “for a further year, two years or indefinitely” has been shared on Facebook in recent days. 

A post from Yellow Vest Ireland claimed Leo Varadkar said lockdowns would continue for this period, but this is not correct and his actual quote was taken out of context.

The post has been shared more than 150 times. It further linked to a separate post shared by a Facebook user at the end of January which included a video clip of the Tánaiste. This has been shared more than 1,200 times. 

Varadkar was not talking about lockdowns when he said those words, but rather mandatory hotel quarantine and the Zero Covid strategy, which is not the strategy used by the government or recommended by public health officials in Ireland. 

At the time, the plan to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for people arriving into Ireland from certain countries had just been confirmed

The clip and quote are taken out of context, and were in relation to a question asked at a government press briefing in January. 

The claim 

leo varadkar factcheck Screenshot of the Yellow Vest Ireland Facebook post.

The post shared on Facebook claims: “LOCKDOWN to continue for a further year, two years or indefinately [sic] according to Varadkar.”

The post included a screenshot of Varadkar at a press briefing about extending Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions on 26 January this year.

It also linked to a separate Facebook post which included a clip of Varadkar speaking at this briefing. This post from 30 January is captioned: “Did RTÉ air this?”

RTÉ did broadcast the briefing, and it was also covered extensively in other media sources including The Journal at the time. 

At the briefing, Varadkar was asked about previous comments that mandatory quarantine could be in place for a year, and then asked whether a Zero Covid strategy was being considered by government. 

This is the quote from Leo Varadkar included in this clip and misquoted in the Yellow Vest Ireland post: “If you’re serious about elimination, and you’re serious about Covid being zero, surely it would go on for a couple of years, or maybe indefinitely.”

The Facebook post clip ends there, but Varadkar continues at the briefing: “Because Covid is now all around the world. It’s always going to be active in some part of of the world, so whenever you reopen your country, you then don’t have Zero Covid anymore.

“It then re-enters, so that is one of the problems with a Zero Covid strategy or an elimination strategy is, you have to, if it’s possible, it’s not possible for us, but if you can seal your country off entirely, when do you ever unseal? Because then inevitably, you let the virus back in again.

He added: “One thing that does concern me about this debate sometimes is people always want the one thing we could do that would solve it in a few months and I think that’s part of what I know both NPHET and government find a little bit frustrating about the Zero Covid promise.

“‘If only you did this one thing, in three months we’ll all be living like New Zealand.’ That’s a false promise, it really is.”

Varadkar has talked about the current period of Level 5 restrictions, commonly referred to as lockdown, on many occasions. 

The loosening of these restrictions is dependent on a number of factors, including Covid-19 case numbers and hospitalisations. 

In February, he did say that he expects some form of restrictions to be in place for much of this year. 

“We will continue to have restrictions in place, advisory and legally enforceable restrictions, at least until we have a critical mass of the adult population vaccinated – 70% or 80% of people,” he said. 

“And then if the vaccines live up to their promise, we’re then in a position to live with the virus the way we live with other viruses like the flu, for example. But that really does require reaching a high level of herd immunity. And the only safe way to do that is through vaccinations.”

Zero Covid

A Zero Covid strategy involves working to eliminate cases of community transmission and investing in finding, testing, tracing isolating and support infrastructure to quickly deal with Covid-19 outbreaks as they occur. 

Variations of this approach are utilised in countries like New Zealand, Australia and Vietnam. 

A spokesperson for the Tánaiste said Varadkar has “never advocated, sought or advised an indefinite lockdown”.

The spokesperson added that the post from Yellow Vest Ireland is “clearly misrepresenting and misquoting” the Tánaiste.

A Zero Covid strategy has been discussed on several occasions over the past year, but the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) has never recommended that the government implement a strategy like this.

The Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said in February that there are many “eminent colleagues” who are advocating this policy and officials have given consideration to this approach.

“There is an awful lot more in common with what we do, but there are some important differences,” he said. “And I think we would highlight those differences rather than be dismissive”.

The first issue with implementing this strategy, he said, is that Ireland is part of the European Union, “economically, socially, legally, culturally”, and this union is designed to provide for the free and easy movement of people, goods and services.

“It is very different to the kind of experience in the countries that are at a distance from other parts of the world, and have been able to achieve [this], countries like New Zealand and Australia and there are plenty of other examples too,” he said.

The epicentre of this infection has been in the northern hemisphere in Europe and in North America and we’ve had a very significant challenge right across Europe since the very beginning of this pandemic with very large levels of infection.

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Dr Holohan said it is “just not realistic” to expect that Ireland could have a “completely sealed border”, due partly to the movement of people to and from Northern Ireland for work. 

He said he recognised that the Zero Covid approach does not presume that there would be no importation of disease, but it does require a more robust public health system than Ireland currently has.

The Labour party tabled a motion calling for a Zero Covid strategy in February. 

Zero Covid has been discussed a lot, particularly in the last few months, and the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was asked about it at this January press briefing. He was also asked about mandatory hotel quarantine, which had been confirmed that day and will take effect from this weekend. 

Varadkar’s quote about these two topics has been misinterpreted in this Facebook post as being about lockdowns.

As a result, we rate the claim that the Tánaiste said lockdown would continue for one year, two years or indefinitely as: MISLEADING. 

As per our verdict guide, this means: The claim either intentionally or unintentionally misleads readers. 

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There is a lot of false news and scaremongering being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie

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