Daniel McConnell: No more caretakers, it’s time we had real government

What a terrible week it has been for this acting Government. A Government, frankly speaking, which has more than outstayed its welcome and needs to be put out of its misery, writes Daniel McConnell

Education minister Joe Mchugh announces the plan to use calculated guides for this year’s Leaving Certificate students, following weeks of speculation and uncertainty. Days later, children’s Minister Katherine Zappone had to concede defeat on the plan to provide childcare to frontline health workers.    Photo: Leon Farrell/PA Wire
Education minister Joe Mchugh announces the plan to use calculated guides for this year’s Leaving Certificate students, following weeks of speculation and uncertainty. Days later, children’s Minister Katherine Zappone had to concede defeat on the plan to provide childcare to frontline health workers. Photo: Leon Farrell/PA Wire

This day last week, we were all digesting the full scale of the Leaving Cert calamity overseen by education minister Joe McHugh.

Then acting children’s minister Katherine Zappone had to concede defeat after the plan to provide childcare to frontline health workers imploded in her lap, and the announcement of said cancellation was done without informing her boss.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made it clear to the Dáil on Thursday the first he heard about it was on the radio that night.

“The first I heard about that was on the RTÉ news. That is not to say that others were not aware of it in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or even in my Department.

Unfortunately, given the nature of my job, it is not possible to be aware of everything. I am sure the Deputy would appreciate that,” he said to some considerable surprise.

As a result, the plan to provide childcare from Monday will not go ahead, meaning hundreds if not thousands of frontline workers will not be able to present for work, as they have no one to mind their children.

For Zappone, it is a sorry chapter in her story as she comes to the end of her political life, having lost her seat in February’s election.

As in the case of McHugh’s bungling on the Leaving Cert, Zappone made the crucial error of announcing the scheme before having the details nailed down, only to force her to u-turn and bring the competency of this interim administration into question.

Another slightly disturbing episode came on Wednesday when Varadkar was pointedly slapped down by the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, for suggesting re-opening schools could be “among the safest” things the country does.

Varadkar was responding to a Hiqa study which found children were not the super-spreaders of the Covid-19 virus as had been feared early on.

Within hours of those comments by Varadkar, Holohan shot them down, dismissing the Hiqa report by insisting not enough evidence was in existence to make any determination.

Ouch.

Such a visible rebuke to the supposed leader of our country by an unelected official did not go unnoticed, with the matter being raised in the Dáil on Thursday.

“There was a pretty embarrassing situation yesterday,” said Labour leader Alan Kelly.

“This is not, and is not meant to be, a slight on the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach made some pretty honest comments yesterday about schools and childcare that related to what he had been told by Dr Michael Ryan of the WHO and representatives of Hiqa."

“Those comments were subsequently shut down by the chief medical officer. That was a critical moment for all of us in this House.

"It was not good for the body politic and is something on which we all need to reflect. The Taoiseach definitely needs to reflect on it, because it was not good. I do not say that in any personal way. For the public to hear one message coming from the Taoiseach and, a couple of hours later, to hear the opposite message coming from the CMO is not good.

“The chronology, the way in which messaging is done between NPHET, particularly the CMO, and the Government needs to change. There needs to be one voice, that of the Government.”

Kelly was not alone.

“The mandarins in the departments are calling the shots,” said Tipperary Independent TD Mattie McGrath.

“I challenge the Taoiseach directly on that. The Taoiseach’s statement last night about the crèches and schools appeared to be an affront to Holohan. I compliment and support him so far, but he is not the Taoiseach. We have to look at him every night on the nine o’clock news and the propaganda and spin.

“I challenge RTÉ and the media for not asking questions about what is going on.”

Then we had the revelations that despite total denials of any tensions between the Department of Health and the HSE, it was revealed that, in fact, those frictions did exist.

The details emerged in correspondence published on Thursday given to the Labour leader.

A letter from HSE CEO Paul Reid to Jim Breslin, the secretary general of the Department of Health, dated April 19, revealed Reid was “extremely disappointed” in Holohan.

Responding to the letter, Holohan said he did not publicly announce a target of 100,000 Covid-19 tests a week so as to put pressure on the HSE.

Holohan said it was not a case that he was attempting to publicly influence the speed with which the HSE ramped up its testing.

He said that the figure was subject of NPHET discussion and communicated to the HSE.

“There have been communication difficulties and so on, but you’re talking about a NPHET meeting that goes back almost a month ago. It would be implausible to think that there weren’t disagreements from time to time,” he said in a bid to downplay the rift.

Holohan said that there were tensions in any high-pressure work scenario, and that in some cases it can ensure better work. He said that Mr Breslin had responded to the letter, but he was not aware of the content of the letter.

Dr Colm Henry, the chief clinical officer, agreed but said that this was natural.

When asked about the letter on Newstalk show The Hard Shoulder, Reid said some tensions were to be expected.

“I would be a fool to think there wouldn’t be tensions between a major agency and a department and there will be more,” said Reid.

“The reality is, what we were working through then, of course, there were tensions, but this was about making sure we had capacity.

“The outcome has been, over the last number of weeks, to have a shared plan, which we published today.

“Absolutely there have been tensions in between, many tensions in various stages as big agencies working with departments, but the outcome has been what we wanted to achieve.”

While not a massive deal in its own right, added to the significant criticisms around the treatment of nursing homes, the PPE debacle, and now the under-declaration of cases at by the Dublin’s Mater Hospital, it served to undermine the credibility of key voices during this crisis.

With Government formation talks continuing to trundle on, 98 days since the public delivered its verdict in the general election, the events of the week highlight why this country needs a new Government as quickly as possible.

Talks from Monday will seek to step up a gear, with senior sources involved in them saying that they cannot go into a third week without significant progress being made.

Questions remain over the appetite of both Fine Gael and the Greens to see the process through to the end.

The legitimacy of this acting government, in light of the major decisions now being taken, is in question.

It is time to put it out of its misery and for the country to get the government it so badly needs.

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