Daniel McConnell: Politicians keep changing their tune at an alarming rate

The trend of people abandoning previous stances wholesale in order for political expedience is frankly alarming, says Daniel McConnell
Daniel McConnell: Politicians keep changing their tune at an alarming rate

 Tánaiste Leo Varadkar's stance on a mandatory quarantine system changed substantially over a four-day period.

Does what our politicians say have any consequence anymore?

Increasingly, it would appear that it is perfectly acceptable for our illustrious leaders to say one thing one week, and then say the complete opposite the next and hope we don’t remember.

Last Thursday week, during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was asked about whether the Government was thinking about introducing a mandatory quarantine system amid a public outcry.

While many have called for Ireland to follow the hardline example set by Australia, which has locked up many of the world’s biggest tennis stars ahead of the Open, in his answer, Varadkar set his face very much against the idea.

“The big flaw for Ireland in imposing 14-day mandatory quarantine with hotel detention for people arriving in our ports and airports is that it would be largely ineffective because we could not do so on the land border with Northern Ireland. Without stating the obvious, countries that have done this successfully are island states — we are an island geographically but not an island state — or countries such as South Korea, which has a border with North Korea that is of a very different type than ours with Northern Ireland,” he said.

“The number of people travelling in and out of the country now is very low. It is down to about 33,000 people a week. Quarantining that many people for 14 days in a hotel with closed windows would be 66,000 people. This is essential travel and we need to make sure we do not cut off essential travel entirely because sometimes it is necessary.

“If we were to take people who have come in from overseas — Irish people returning home; citizens coming back from overseas who have a negative test for Covid — and detain them in a hotel for 14 days, that would be disproportionate because there are lots of people in Ireland who we know have tested positive for Covid and we do not seek to detain them,” he said.

So at that stage, quarantining people would be ineffective and disproportionate, according to Mr Varadkar.

Just four days later, last Monday night, the very same Leo Varadkar was on the Claire Byrne Live show on RTÉ television.

He was speaking having travelled from the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 which had agreed that lockdown restrictions were to be extended until March 5, pending a meeting of the full Cabinet the next day.

Mr Varadkar was singing a very different tune.

Not only was he saying the quarantining people was now possible but being actively considered. He went even further, he said that such quarantine measures would be proposed to Cabinet and would have to be in place for a year.

“Well, first of all, any decision that could save hundreds of lives is proportionate. I am a member of government that on three occasions now has shut the country down. So, what I felt was disproportionate — perhaps I used the wrong term, I should use inconsistent — is quarantining people who have tested negative for Covid, when we don't have when we don't quarantine people who've tested positive for Covid,” he said.

While saying the quarantine system should not be seen as the silver bullet, he did say that quarantine measures would most likely be in place “for a year.” 

“Once you make, once you do a very dramatic public healthcare measure like that, or public health, public health measure like that, it's hard to reverse. And I think we probably wouldn't reverse it until everyone was vaccinated,” he said.

That was quite the shift in position in just four days.

But on the same programme, Mr Varadkar also insisted that the re-opening of the country will be “very slow” and can only happen in line with public health advice.

That would be the advice of Nphet. The same Nphet he trashed on the same programme eight weeks ago after he said the advice given to Government “was not thought through”.

It has often been said that Mr Varadkar, given his particular style, can get away with such blatant pivots in position, or u-turns as they are otherwise called, without taking much political flack for them.

But others are no so fortunate.

Stephen Donnelly landed himself in trouble this week. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
Stephen Donnelly landed himself in trouble this week. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Another Cabinet minister, Stephen Donnelly, landed himself in all sorts of bother this week by backtracking and watering down statements and promises he made in relation to the much-criticised rollout of the various vaccines.

On Thursday, Mr Donnelly appeared to make a series of blunders in a Dáil session claiming he could not remember what he said on Tuesday and giving out the wrong figures on vaccines.

RISE TD Paul Murphy asked the minister: "Earlier this week you quite unbelievably claimed one of the reasons we could not pursue a zero-Covid strategy was that we don’t know for sure that another Covid variant wouldn’t arrive that would make the vaccine ineffective. What on earth did you mean by that?"

Mr Donnelly said he did not recall that he ever made such a claim: "I have to go back and check exactly that interview or statement ... but as you characterise that right now, that doesn't sound right to me."

On Tuesday, Mr Donnelly said: "You've got to keep in mind as well, the new complexity which is variants, so the UK variant ... we now are confident that the vaccines work on it but it's far more contagious than the Wuhan strain for example.

“The jury is still out on terms of the Brazilian or South African variant on how exactly they may interact with the vaccines and will the vaccines be just as effective.

"What the virologists are telling us is that there will inevitably be other strains popping up around the world as well and while we may all and we will achieve the requisite level of vaccination here at some point this year, it doesn't mean it necessarily will work against other strains and that has to be factored into the strategy for the future."

In the same session, Mr Donnelly told the Dáil that 48,000 Pfizer vaccines arrived into the country this week. However, the HSE say just 24,570 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived in the same time period. Later, Labour's Alan Kelly said it was "scary" that the minister did not know this.

But it is not just Government which appears to have difficulties in maintaining a consistent message.

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald has lambasted the Government this week over its failure to deliver the quarantine system as demanded by the majority of the people.

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald.  Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald.  Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

“I’m very disappointed they have opted for ‘half measures’ in respect of quarantine and international travel," Ms McDonald said on Tuesday.

“A mandatory system of testing, information sharing & quarantine for all arriving on the island of Ireland is essential — and long overdue,” she said.

But, as Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher pointed out, this is the same Mary Lou McDonald who opposed public health advice in early December when she called for all pubs to be re-opened just as public health doctors wanted them shut.

“Sinn Féin’s ability to U-turn is beyond shameless. Anti-EU now Pro-EU, Anti-12.5% Corp Tax now in favour. Against recognising the Dáil but now in favour. Against Nphet advice but now in favour? They will say & do anything on any given day to promote their movement,” Mr Kelleher said.

I am not adverse to people changing their minds or adapting new positions, but the trend of people abandoning previous stances wholesale in order for political expedience is frankly alarming.

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