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Opinion: We need a national unity government immediately to battle Covid-19

An all-party coalition is now needed to bring politicians together to address the crisis, writes Ciarán Cuffe of The Green Party.

Image: Rolling News

JUST OVER TWO months ago on 20 January, I got a call from a friend.

“What do you think about this coronavirus story? It seems to be quite an issue in China”.

“Storm in a teacup”, I replied.

Ever since I worked in Beijing a few years ago I had kept a list of commentators on Chinese issues on Twitter. Sure, the coronavirus had been mentioned, but it wasn’t that big an issue, or so it seemed.

Scroll forward a month, and I took another good look at China, and by this stage, they were in lockdown. I realised the world had changed. A few days later I’m attending a prize-giving for a Model European Council in Dublin Castle. There were students from schools all around Ireland debating with each other, and ambassadors present from all EU states. As the event finished up there was a photo shoot with each ambassador.

They all held out their hands and I politely declined their offer to shake. Some looked slightly puzzled when I declined. Others nodded in agreement. They knew this was serious.

Late February and I’m back in Brussels when the European Parliament closes its doors to external visitors. Suddenly the corridors are quieter and meetings now take place in cafes and other venues outside the Parliament.

I meet the Union of Students of Ireland in a nearby coffee shop; a transport engineer from the African Union in the Parliament’s visitors centre, and a European tenants’ association in another cafe. Life continued.

Then the monthly plenary session of Parliament, normally held in Strasbourg was moved to Brussels. Some French MEPs were furious, but no-one wanted to be quarantined in a hotel room. On Monday 10 February the session was abruptly cut short due to health concerns. I was due to speak that evening about the new Climate Law, but it was not to be.

Orders of business

The shortened agenda had three items, the Migrant crisis in Greece, the EU’s finances and the coronavirus pandemic. Gradually, and then suddenly the world had changed.

I’m back in Dublin almost two weeks now, teleworking from home. We’re all getting used to linking up on Google Hangouts, WhatsApp group calls, WebEx and Zoom. As a politician, my work is now dominated by the need to respond to the Covid-19 crisis.

This pandemic will utterly change the legislative and economic programme for both Ireland and the EU, though other work continues. I’m preparing a report on how we get all Europe’s building stock up to an A-energy rating by 2050, and in typical European fashion, it involves phone calls that establish a consensus on the issue between MEP colleagues in different political groups in Bulgaria, Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark. Emails between staff working from home in Belgium and Ireland move the work along. Is this the new normal we ask ourselves?

Sadly, this is only the calm before the storm. As the first wave of infection appears to recede in China, here in Ireland infection rates are rising daily, and the numbers will increase in the coming days.

Our Covid-19 cases are rising steadily here in Ireland. If we don’t take further measures this could grow and become unmanageable. Thankfully mortality rates in Ireland have not been as high as in Italy but this may well change.

Time for political unity

Leo Varadkar’s address to the nation last week set the tone for what will be a difficult time. However, we now need to maintain this week’s further lockdown to reduce the risk of infection. Our advance worrying must become advance thinking and planning. We are in a similar position to where Italy was just a few weeks ago. We must adopt even more restrictive isolation measures now to avoid Italy’s fate. More restrictions on movement are needed in this critical two-week period. An Garda Síochána must enforce the changes announced this week.

Action is needed to ensure public transport is not over-crowded. If we don’t do this an avoidable tragedy will unfold. No one wishes to see this happen. Politicians from all sides must unite and act on the best medical advice to tackle this global pandemic.

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A unity government

We must unite to do our best to provide supports for those hardest hit by our sudden economic downturn and to ensure that our brave frontline workers have access to everything they need.

The Green Party believes that an all-party coalition is now needed to bring politicians together to address the crisis. This is not a time for detailed policy discussions about Government formation. It is a time for decisive action.

When the worst is over we can plan a recovery that is informed by the European Green Deal, and that tackles underlying deficiencies in health and housing and climate action. However, it is now time to act as one.

Ciarán Cuffe is the Green Party MEP for Dublin.

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