Tánaiste under fire for breaking ranks on Covid-19 measures

Comments from Mr Varadkar were taken by ministers as him saying the added restrictions were “peculiar” and were met with considerable annoyance and frustration
Tánaiste under fire for breaking ranks on Covid-19 measures

Several leading members of government yesterday said Mr Varadkar's comments “undermined the Government”.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar is under fire from within the Cabinet for seeking to "distance himself" from the decision to introduce additional Covid-19 restrictions on Friday.

Comments from Mr Varadkar were taken by ministers as him saying the added restrictions were “peculiar” and were met with considerable annoyance and frustration.

It comes as the Taoiseach Micheál Martin and several ministers defended the decision to “clip the wings” of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) in terms of limiting its public utterances.

Several leading members of government yesterday said Mr Varadkar's comments “undermined the Government”.

There is a sense that as ministers, they must “own the decisions” they make and back them and not be seen to back away from them.

Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath said yesterday the decisions on restrictions that were made by the Cabinet were unanimous.

Mr McGrath said the restrictions brought in on Friday were not peculiar and said he fully supports the decisions that the Government has made.

Seeking to clarify his comments yesterday, a spokesperson for Mr Varadkar said: "The Tánaiste did not say that the restriction were peculiar. He said the situation we are in is peculiar in that we are tightening restrictions when the situation is improving in terms of numbers in hospitals and ICU and outperforming our most optimistic models. 

"This is the first time we have done this since the pandemic began. The reason for the new restrictions, which the Tánaiste supports, arises from concerns about increased social mixing in the run up to Christmas, the flu season and uncertainty about the omicron variant."

However, senior government figures have confirmed Mr Varadkar was “highly resistant and sceptical” about the nature of the latest recommendation from Nphet and their likely benefit at the Cabinet meeting on Friday.

Fine Gael ministers were said to be more vociferous in their criticisms of Nphet than their Fianna Fáil and Green colleagues.

Defending Mr Varadkar’s comments yesterday, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said the health context in this guidance is very different to where we would have been a year ago, or in earlier parts in the pandemic.

“If you look at where we are, there are some signs of stability, with where we are, to a number of weeks ago,” he said. “The reason I'm saying all that is it’s important to note the rationale for public health guidelines means there's a precautionary element to them,” he added.

Fine Gael sources have said Mr Varadkar’s comments were part of a wider party strategy to “lay down a marker” regarding Fine Gael's low appetite for any more restrictions.

Driven by poor opinion poll ratings, the sources say the party has been seeking to “provide some form of a bulwark” against moves to put the country back into lockdown.

Mr McGrath revealed that ministers were “uneasy” that recommendations to reintroduce Covid-19 restrictions were leaked to the media before Cabinet ministers had them.

Mr Donohoe said it is appropriate that the messaging around Covid-19 must be subject to a much greater deal of “coordination”.

“Coordination is important,” he said.

He conceded that this week was a “challenging period” in terms of the messaging around the potential increase in restrictions before decisions were taken.

No suggestion of Nphet 'being gagged'

Mr Martin said there is no suggestion of Nphet “being gagged” or its independence being impacted upon.

He sought to play down suggestions of divisions within government over the role of Government but said "coordination" was key in terms of Government messaging. Other Government ministers have said they have placed an “effective veto” over Nphet speaking out in public, with radio shows reporting cancellations from Nphet members on Sunday following the decision.

Sounding an optimistic note Mr McGrath said the new restrictions introduced by the Government on Friday will be lifted if the Omicron variant turns out to be a milder variant than feared.

“If the findings of all the research that's going on globally into Omicron find that it does not meet our worse fears, then we will be in a position to remove those restrictions based on public health advice over the period ahead quite quickly,” he said.

Mr McGrath also revealed that he expects that the Pandemic Unemployment Payment will be reinstated at the original rate of €350 for those who lose their jobs as a result of the new restrictions being imposed.

Mr Donohoe said that those who were on a reduced rate of support will not be able to attract the higher rate but will be restored at the lower rate of support.

 

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