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'This is a mess': Government blind-sided by NPHET advice as criticisms pile up against Taoiseach

Opposition and businesses have said the proposals are unacceptable, discriminatory, “bananas” and possibly not legal.

Image: RollingNews.ie

Updated Jun 30th 2021, 12:26 AM

“THIS IS A mess.”

Those were the words from one minister after Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

“Blind-sided” is how another minister described the advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) which recommended that only vaccinated people should be allowed to dine indoors or enjoy any indoor activity for that matter.

“A bolt out of the blue” were the words used by another who said there was no indication that such advice was coming their way. 

The advice sent shock waves through the hospitality sector and the Dáil.

Opposition and businesses have said the proposals are unacceptable, discriminatory, “bananas” and possibly not legal.

Government sources have said the “anger is palpable” and is being felt at a force they were not expecting.

TDs said their phones are hopping with constituents venting their frustrations, and questioning how government could even countenance such a proposal of creating somewhat of a two-tiered society. 

Independent Galway TD Catherine Connolly, who is often described as one of the most level-headed politicians in the Dáil, said the Government’s plans will have serious implications and will create a “division among our people”.

“Proceeding down this divisive road is unacceptable,” she said.

Both within government, and even within the Taoiseach’s own party, the criticisms were piling up. 

With the Taoiseach coming out early on last week indicating that government would accept whatever NPHET’s advice might be, Micheál Martin “rolled out the red carpet” for the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohon, said one source.

The door was left open for him to put forward whatever proposals he wanted, they said. 

One Fianna Fáil backbencher said it shows no one in government understands business and how it works, stating that Martin has failed to show any “backbone” or leadership. 

This politician said big questions would be asked of the Taoiseach at his parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday night The party will be savaged for this, they said. 

They added that it again raises the questions – who is in charge, who sets government policy? NPHET or those sitting around the Cabinet table?

When asked about the relationship between NPHET and the government, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said all was fine.

Why didn’t the public health experts give the government a heads up that they were thinking of going down this road is a question that will have to posed to NPHET, said the Tánaiste.

“Up until now, it was both policy of government and the advice of NPHET not to go down this road of vaccine passes for access to domestic services and we were reliant on that,” he said. 

“Delta has changed the situation and therefore the advice has changed and therefore government decided to change our policy on foot of that,” he added.

He said a few days ago, the expectation was that there might be a short delay to the reopening of indoor hospitality, so as to get more people vaccinated, but Varadkar said NPHET was very clear that that would not be possible now.  

Serious concerns were raised around the Cabinet table over the proposed measures, and how the government appeared to have found itself backed into a corner.

“They only want fully vaccinated people to be allowed indoors, for all activities,” said one source, who said they seem to be against having any unvaccinated people inside, for months, possibly indefinitely.

One senior source said it is either accept the advice or face the possibility of not reopening indoor dining until the autumn. There does not seem to be much of an appetite to say no to NPHET. 

When The Journal asked the Taoiseach if the government, having been badly burned from the approach they took at Christmas, is preventing the government from making independent decisions to NPHET, Martin replied by saying the modelling presented by the public health experts was “stark”.

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He said it was his view that the public want to maintain the progress and agree that it would be unwise to take steps that would jepordise that. 

However, those in Fianna Fáil have said the Taoiseach appears to be “out of touch” with the public. 

While some have said it is healthy to have some “tension” between NPHET and government, they state the real issue is “government’s fear of disagreeing with NPHET who are supposed to be an advisory body”.

“NPHET will always err on the side of caution and they focus solely on public health so we know what they’ll say. Government should take that advice and balance it with all the other things they have to consider like job losses and mental well-being. The government got stung at Christmas when they went against NPHET and numbers sky rocketed so they seem afraid not to follow NPHET advice to the letter,” said one Fianna Fáil soure.

They said the move is likely to go down very badly within the party and there is widespread opposition to the vaccine pass for hospitality.  

The Taoiseach will be reminded of what he told his party two months ago, where he highlighted difficulties in the domestic use of so-called ‘green cert’ or vaccine bonus to access any services, such as pubs and restaurants. 

Citing civil liberties issues, he told his parliamentary party meeting at the time that such a pass would only be used for overseas travel, and that Ireland would follow in the footsteps of the UK which does not require such a cert for outdoor dining or non essential retail.

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