Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has said the country faced an “existential challenge” during the first Covid lockdown in March 2020 in not being able to look after its own people in a time of emergency.
Mr Donohoe also says he was “really, really angry” at then chief medical officer (CMO) Tony Holohan’s demand to introduce a full Level 5 Covid-19 lockdown in October 2020.
The finance minister made his comments in a new Let Me Tell You.podcast,
He says he was told that at the height of the pandemic that “between 600,000 and 800,000 people could lose their jobs in the following week” because of lockdowns.
“We were facing the risk that so many of our own officials could be ill we might not be able to process the applications they would have for normal jobseekers payments. I believed at that point that we were facing an existential challenge for a modern State,” said Mr Donohoe.
Mr Donohoe says his big regret is the Government’s decision to moderate restrictions in advance of Christmas 2020 which he says “led to people getting sick”.
Mr Donohoe reveals that when he realised that the Government was going to have to reverse course, he got out all his Cabinet papers with all the health advice to see where a mistake was made.
“I was thinking to myself, God, you know, what did I miss? What should I have said? What did I get wrong?”
Mr Donohoe also speaks for the first time about the scale of tensions between the Government and Dr Holohan. He has accused the former CMO and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) of totally “disrupting” the budget, due the week after Dr Holohan called for a lockdown in October 2020, and undermining the Government’s authority in dealing with the pandemic.
Mr Donohoe says that while he has “great admiration and affection” for Dr Holohan, he reacted viscerally to his call to impose severe restrictions just days before the budget was due to be delivered.
“Myself and Michael McGrath were trying to do a budget over that weekend which was all about trying to indicate to the people of Ireland that we had a plan that would ultimately help the economy get through this.
“Myself and Michael were working flat out. On the Sunday, I got a call from a member of the Tánaiste's team, then from the Tánaiste, saying everything's just changed course.
Dr Holohan had just returned from compassionate leave early and had felt a full lockdown was required just 72 hours after Nphet said Level 2 restrictions were adequate.
The Government ultimately adopted Level 3 only to move to Level 5 for six weeks later that month.