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McDonald writes to Taoiseach about getting cross-party buy in for lifting of restrictions plan

McDonald has criticised recent kite-flying by government about lifting restrictions.

Image: Niall Carson

SINN FÉIN LEADER Mary Lou McDonald has written to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar urging the government to seek a shared understanding among all parties about the plan to ease restrictions. 

The letter also sets out requests for proper health and safety procedures to be put in place to protect workers, ahead of the re-opening of workplaces. 

She also states that she is concerned that the government had increased expectations regarding the lifting of restrictions on 5 May, claiming recent kite-flying has caused confusion. 

In an interview with TheJournal.ie, McDonald said she wrote to the Taoiseach to make the point that “he needs to be talking to the opposition, we need to be listening to each other, we need a shared understanding around how we unwind these provisions”.

Cabinet is meeting today to get an update from the Taoiseach and Health Minister Simon Harris about Covid-19. Varadkar has stated that the road map for lifting the restrictions will be published this week, though any decision on easing the current restrictions is not expected until Friday.

“I am very conscious that expectations have been raised. The 5 May is kind of a red-letter day and I think we need to be very careful. I think the kite-flying over the last week or so by some people in government was extremely unhelpful and they’ve created now this complacency that they’re giving out about,” McDonald said.

“I think we need much steadier hands on this. The truth is that this virus is with us. We have neither immunity, nor an anti-virus, or a vaccine. And so long as the virus is with us and that could be weeks, even months, we are going to have to have precautionary measures.

“Core to all of us is comprehensive, efficient testing and tracing,” she said, stating this must be achieved before any gradual easing can be considered.

“If you don’t, what you will create is the real possibility of another spike in terms of infection.”

McDonald said “this is big stuff” and all political parties need to be on the same page in order to bring the public along with the plan, which is likely to last throughout the summer.

“Ideally, we’re in a shared space around how we’re going to do this because we’re going to have to go out and talk to people about it,” she said.

“At the end of the day, all of this is about public safety, health and saving lives. Then we have the big job of rebuilding the economy. And we need people on board,” added McDonald, who said that up until now there has been a shared belief across all parties that Ireland has taken the right approach. 

The Sinn Féin leader said there is a need for transparency around decision-making, stating “at some level, the system has to trust citizens to understand the processes, and the means by which decisions are made”.

The public has a right to the fullest possible information, she said.

“Not just because that’s good practice in any open democracy, but because we are in an emergency, and an emergency which requires and asks citizens to limit things, even the distance that you can stray, just two kilometres around your home, your kids are still not in school, people have lost jobs, people have lost the shirt off their back, businesses that they’ve sent spent years working to build up, they’re wondering how they are going to be able continue – this is big stuff.

“So I think at a minimum, there has to be a sense of security that you’re hearing everything.”

Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan addressed the issue of the delay in publishing minutes of meetings held with members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) at last night’s Department of Health briefing.

“It’s just a workload issue and trying to prioritise as much as possible,” he told reporters. “We’re committed to the principle of transparency. What has to happen now is that some of those sets of minutes which are written, need to be circulated and discussed at the regular meeting, which would be normal course with any committee and approved for publication.”

While McDonald said that reviews of mistakes on what went wrong during this emergency will eventually be needed, in the here and now, the Dáil needs to get up and running.

It is currently only sitting every Thursday. 

Social distancing is taking place when TDs attend Leinster House, but it is understood that the Convention Centre, which will be used for the vote on the next Taoiseach, will also be used for more regular sittings of the Dáil in the near future. 

“We need more capacity for scrutiny of decisions, of government decisions and others. What we have now with one meeting of the Dáil a week is not sufficient. I know certainly we are pushing for more sittings, all of which should be done safely and in accordance with health guidance,” she said, adding that more sittings are in the pipeline as many parties are demanding it.

She added:

If people think that the decision to lock things down was a big decision, it was. But it is dwarfed by any decision that will be taken to open things back up again in a gradual way.
The implications are enormous. And they need to be fully thought through. And I think we need a considered, a shared position across the Oireachtas, guided by the best medical and scientific advice. But I certainly don’t think that this is a decision that should be solely taken by a caretaker government.

When it comes to reopening the economy, the Sinn Féin leader said a cross-government approach will be needed, but not necessarily a special minister for the Covid-19 response.

The government will need to ensure that big institutional players like the banks and insurance companies “play ball” and support a strategy for growth, she said.  They cannot be allowed to “feather their own nests and look only to their own interest”, added McDonald. 

Mistakes made

While agreeing with the approach of government, McDonald said mistakes have been made, such as with funding announcements for areas such as nursing homes and testing. At times the announcements don’t “tally with what’s happening on the ground”. 

On nursing homes, she said “mistakes were made there and we still haven’t been told the rationale, or the reasoning for the beginning of March when the nursing homes were ahead of things, were saying we need to introduce restrictions and stop visits to our facility, why they were told that they were wrong”.

“They were clearly right,” she said. 

“There are things like that, that need to be asked not to just create a political controversy or to criticise for their own sake” but to ensure there is confidence by the public in the decisions being taken. 

Holohan was asked at last night’s NPHET briefing about the recommendations to restrict visitation at nursing homes and whether the advice was too late.

“We don’t think that the measure in terms of restricting visiting nursing homes was introduced too late, although that’s been suggested,” he responded, explaining that the team was conscious of the social impact such a measure would have. 

Prior to the announcement of visiting restrictions being announced on 12 March, he added, there were only two clusters of infections, neither of which were in nursing homes. 

McDonald also believes the delays in ramping up testing has “absolutely” hindered the government’s ability to re-open the economy.

For a number of weeks, the authorities have promised to ramp up testing to 100,000 per week. This weekend, the HSE committed to a deadline for this target.

Northern Ireland

On the issue of Northern Ireland, McDonald said it would “absolutely” be better served by following the plan in the Republic.

The position adopted by the authorities in London was a “crazy, crazy proposition” stating that they ultimately rolled back on the herd immunity plan.

“I think the whole episode just demonstrates the jeopardy of the border when decisions that affect us all here on this island are being taken in London.” 

When asked if she is comfortable with the possible prospect of the British Army on the streets in the North to aid with the Covid-19 measures, she said:

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“It’s not necessary. That was the issue,” referring to a controversy when Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann asked for help from the British army during the Covid-19 crisis without consulting Stormont.

“That option was there and available as an option of last resort and it’s unnecessary. I think everybody knows that it’s not necessary. Here is the bottom line, whatever we need to do to keep people safe will be done to keep people safe.”

McDonald said authorities in the North and the Republic have manged to harmonise things “to a great degree”, stating that the meeting taking place today between Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill and health ministers both North and south, will be “helpful”.

She said the virus does not respect borders, and that in previous times, when there was a real and live threat to the national herd, a ‘fortress Ireland’ approach was adopted. 

“It is crazy” that the same cannot be done when there is public health emergency.

Government formation

On government formation, she it is extraordinary that the country is in the “grips of a public health emergency” and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael continue to take the “disgraceful position” to rule out talking to her party.

“I think the arrogance of that position speaks for itself. For the Greens [Green Party] and for others, they will have [to make] a judgment call,” she said. 

McDonald said Sinn Féin still has a chance of entering government, but that is also dependent on the choices of other smaller parties. 

On her own experience with Covid-19, the Dublin TD urged people need to heed the health advice. 

If there’s anybody who has a sense of bravado in terms of themselves and this virus they’re “very, very misguided”, she said. 

“I have no clue how I picked this virus up, I have no idea. We were very, very cautious, and very careful. And still, such is the transmissibility of this virus, it got into our house.

“So it’s kind of a cautionary tale, but the good news is I recovered from it, I recovered at home, I wasn’t hospitalized. I was very, very lucky. So you can also fight the virus. That’s the good news. You don’t want to be catching this thing at all.” 

McDonald had been in self-isolation earlier than most due to her children’s school being closed in early March due to one of the first cases being detected in the school. 

How is her family coping?

“We were ahead of the curve, but we’re no different to other families. We’re trying to keep an order and a bit of routine around the school work. It’s a challenge. My kids are teenagers so the absence of contact with their peer groups is hugely difficult for kids at that age. They’re missing their own routine, sports and their friends.

“So, like every parent I’m concerned that you keep routine, that you keep some sense of purpose and like the rest of us, we keep an eye on things like anxiety. 

“As a family overall we’re chipping away, we’re taking up one day at a time. This is day whatever in the Big Brother House,” she joked, stating:

“We’re still talking to each other so that’s probably a good thing.”

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