Michael Clifford: Two major issues lie at heart of Covid-19 outbreak in Kerry direct provision centre

Michael Clifford: Two major issues lie at heart of Covid-19 outbreak in Kerry direct provision centre
Residents of Direct Provision and Cahersiveen Community and Business Alliance, who stood peacefully outside the Legal Aid Board building in Caherciveen Co Kerry, calling for the immediate resignation of the Minister for Justice & Equality, Mr. Charlie Flanagan over his handling of the ongoing controversy in the Skellig Star hotel, Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry. Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan

Two issues of major importance at are the heart of the controversy around the setting up of a direct provision centre in Caherciveen in County Kerry.

Was a person who was infected with Covid transported from Dublin to the south Kerry town? If so, up to 100 asylum seekers were placed in heightened danger of infection. At least 20 were infected, along with a small number of staff at the centre.

Prior to the arrival of asylum seekers on March 18-19, the town and its surrounds were virtually virus-free. The only known case was a local man who travelled frequently to Europe with his work. Otherwise, the remote peninsula is believed to have been 'clean'.

The second issue, of even more importance, is whether the Department of Justice has been disseminating information over the last couple of months to deflect from the possibility that the virus was transported south.

Here is what we do know:

On March 8 a guest at the Travelodge hotel near Dublin airport fell ill. He was hospitalised and late diagnosed with Covid 19.

Members of the party he was travelling with stayed on at the hotel to self-isolate for two weeks. It is believed that some members of staff at the hotel subsequently tested positive for the virus.

Meanwhile, 70 asylum seekers who had been staying at the hotel for a number of months were moved on March 18-19. They were transported to two centres, one of which was the Skellig Star Hotel in Cahirciveen. The trip south by bus took at least six hours. In total between 96 and 105 people were brought down.

The centre in the Skellig Star has been mired in controversy.

- When the buses arrived it was discovered that the bedrooms were smaller than expected.

- There was no central heating and an issue with hot water.

- The staff were not trained or garda vetted.

- There wasn’t even sufficient hand sanitiser in the hotel.

- Beyond a converted washroom there was precious little capacity for self-isolation.

Michael Clifford: Two major issues lie at heart of Covid-19 outbreak in Kerry direct provision centre
Pearl Dineen, a niece of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty with her Son Cormac Dineen, who together with Residents of Direct Provision and Cahersiveen Community and Business Alliance stood peacefully outside the Legal Aid Board building in Caherciveen Co Kerry, calling for the immediate resignation of the Minister for Justice & Equality, Mr. Charlie Flanagan over his handling of the ongoing controversy in the Skellig Star hotel, Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry. Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan

The Department has always been adamant that the virus could not have been present among those brought to Caherciveen. This was based on the fact that the first positive cases in the Skellig Star were diagnosed well outside the two-week incubation period.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan articulated this position in an open letter issued to the people of Cahirciveen on May 20: “There was no indication that anyone we moved from that hotel (Travelodge) was in any way unwell, was awaiting a test or a test result."

“In fact, and this I believe is a really crucial point, it was well over a fortnight — the incubation period — before any of our residents in Caherciveen began to show symptoms or were confirmed positive for Covid-19.”

The day after that letter was published the Irish Examiner reported that it was factually inaccurate. There was documentary proof that one person was self-isolating from at least March 24 and was probably doing so for at least two days by that time. This person had come from the hotel in north Dublin.

The Department refused to accept that. The following week in the Dáil, Fianna Fail TD Norma Foley repeated the point. The Department pleaded ignorance.

Then last Wednesday, the Irish Times reported that the Department had “discovered a form” that had been sent from Caherciveen on March 24. Three weeks after the Irish Examiner revealed the existence of such a form it was finally discovered.

The Department stated this was an “honest mistake” and then went on to imply that the discovery makes no difference as “this person subsequently tested negative for the virus". Not just that, but “we have also been able to establish that none of the persons who tested positive in the initial stages of the progression of the virus in the centre were transferred from that north Dublin hotel.” Mr Flanagan added to the department’s position last Wednesday on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny programme.

“There was a person who we subsequently established was tested. However it wasn’t’ a positive test and there were all sorts of reports and allegations made about the situation,” he told the presenter.

Both the Department’s statement and the minister’s response to Pat Kenny are entirely misleading. As the Irish Examiner reports today, the person showing symptoms had a test scheduled for March 27 in Tralee but this was then cancelled by the HSE. So how can anybody know that this person was not infected?

Michael Clifford: Two major issues lie at heart of Covid-19 outbreak in Kerry direct provision centre
Residents of Direct Provision and Cahersiveen Community and Business Alliance, who stood peacefully outside the Legal Aid Board building in Caherciveen Co Kerry, calling for the immediate resignation of the Minister for Justice & Equality, Mr. Charlie Flanagan. Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan

She was eventually tested along with most of those in the centre on April 22-23 — well over a month after she began to show symptoms. There is every possibility that this woman contracted the virus and had recovered by the time she was tested.

No blame whatsoever attaches to her. However, if she were the source of the outbreak in the Skellig Star it would explain how the virus, nearly completely absent in the locality, broke out in the cramped hotel conditions the asylum seekers were living in.

What is disturbing is the apparent eagerness of the Minister for Justice and the department to discount this possibility. Both have erroneously set out a misleading position in relation to it on a number of different occasions now.

Minister Flanagan has stated that the Department is conducting an internal review into the whole affair. On the basis of what has emerged, can any confidence be invested in such an inquiry?

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