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Taoiseach: 'Zero-Covid strategy is not possible or sustainable'

NPHET does not recommend such a strategy, says Micheál Martin.

Opposition parties argue that a zero-Covid strategy could save summer, but government ministers disagree.
Opposition parties argue that a zero-Covid strategy could save summer, but government ministers disagree.
Image: Sam Boal

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said a zero-Covid strategy is not possible or sustainable as the border with Northern Ireland cannot be sealed.

Speaking at Government Buildings where the Taoiseach announced the extension of Level 5 restrictions until 5 March, he said a zero-Covid strategy was discussed at the Cabinet sub-committee on Monday, as well as with the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

However, he said Ireland’s public health experts do not recommend such a plan.

“It’s a promise that you could never fulfill,” he said, stating “once you reopen again, the prospect is there for reseeding of the virus”.

Given Ireland’s geographic location, the “seamless interaction north and south” as well as the movement of border communities, it is not something that would work in Ireland, he said.

“It’s not as simple as putting a seal on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it’s a seamless interaction.

“Likewise, with the UK, we have very severe restrictions now, but there’s always been historically that interaction. And then we’re connected to the European Economic Zone.

“So there’s always a limit to the degree to which you could seal the island of Ireland, there are real limits on the capacity to do that,” said the Taoiseach.

‘Not realistic’

It is not the first time he has said this. In October, he also stated such a plan was “not realistic” for Ireland – for the same reasons.

Ministers have long been frustrated with the calls for a zero-Covid strategy, arguing that comparing Ireland to countries such as Australia and New Zealand is not comparing like for like, given that there are two jurisdictions on this island. 

Other concerns have been raised in relation to Ireland’s supply chain if the country was cut off. 

However, a growing number of Opposition TDs have called for a zero-Covid approach that could “save the summer”, as People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett said today. 

His party is putting down a motion for such a strategy in the Dáil this week.

Róisín Shortall, co-leader of the Social Democrats, said it was disappointing that travel proposals today “fall far short of a zero-Covid or elimination strategy. There is public support for going further. We need to do it right and do it now”.

Today, its party members criticised the Government for introducing “half-hearted” measures when it comes to travel.

The strategy has been much talked about since the onset of the pandemic, however the notion that the model is unrealistic has been repeated by Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan. 

‘When do you unseal the country?’

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said this afternoon that if those advocating for Covid-zero are serious, it would mean the strategy would be followed for a “couple of years, or maybe indefinitely because [the virus] is now all around the world”.

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“It’s always going to be active in some part 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 the zero-Covid strategy or elimination strategy. It is not possible for us,” he said. 

If you cut the country off from the rest of the world entirely “when do you ever unseal, because then inevitably, you let the virus back in again”, he said. 

New Zealand have said today that they don’t intend on considering a reopening to foreign travel until they have vaccinated their population, “and they haven’t even started vaccinating yet”, said Varadkar.

He said the debate concerned him, and was frustrating many in government. Those advocating for zero-Covid are saying that in “three months we’ll live like New Zealand. That’s a false promise, it really is,” he said.

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