Paul Hosford: The State couldn't just give antigen tests away. Unless, of course, you're in Leinster House

TDs and senators twigged yesterday that approving free tests for themselves would go down as well as a clown at a funeral 
Paul Hosford: The State couldn't just give antigen tests away. Unless, of course, you're in Leinster House

Waterford TD and Green Party whip Marc Ó Cathasaigh and other TDs made it clear they wanted elected representatives to pay for antigen tests for them and their staff. File picture: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews

In the running battles over Covid, antigen tests are the latest.

In April, the Government unveiled an expert group report on the pros and cons of the tests. Then, it was envisaged that they would become a key aspect of fighting the virus. 

But somewhere over the summer they slipped off the agenda, until this week, when widespread restrictions were reimposed and people collectively realised the tests had simply never been widely deployed.

Calls were made for the tests to be free for everyone, but Health Minister Stephen Donnelly resisted, telling RTÉ's Claire Byrne that money spent on free antigen testing would be money no longer available to pay for nurses.

The great test giveaway that was. Then wasn't.

The State couldn't just give the tests away. Unless, of course, you're a staff member in Leinster House, that is.

Yesterday's meeting of the Oireachtas business committee broke up with members in near-universal agreement that a proposal had been made to give tests free to staff and members of the Oireachtas. The decision had been taken by the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, who said that only staff would be covered — the staff of Leinster House have been magnificent throughout the pandemic and should absolutely have access to free testing. 

Then, the Houses of the Oireachtas Service denied that any mention had ever been made of free tests for TDs and senators.

That was despite multiple sources on the committee saying such a proposal had been made, including Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath, who released a statement, and the Government's own chief whip, Jack Chambers.

The Dáil was told by Green Party whip Marc Ó Cathasaigh that he, Mr Chambers, and Fine Gael's whip Brendan Griffin had signed a letter to Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl. It  said: 

Further to the notification by the Oireachtas Service at the Business Committee today of providing free antigen tests to the parliamentary community, we feel it is necessary to ensure that parties and groups would make a full contribution to the cost of these tests if they are used by Members or their staff. 

This was after the Ceann Comhairle had a blazing row with Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon on the issue. 

You can view their exchange in the Dáil here

The Ceann Comhairle effectively told the Dáil that the Irish Examiner's story was incorrect — there were no plans for free tests for TDs — despite the Government chief whip writing him a letter that confirmed it.

In the end, most TDs and senators balked at the idea of free tests for politicians, knowing that it would go down about as well as a clown at a funeral, and many committed to the tests being free across society.

Stephen Donnelly says he is sensitive to the criticism faced by the UK government for its overspend on the free tests — but that ignores the fact that authorities in London massively overestimated demand, and questions were raised about the awarding of contracts.

Nobody in Ireland would argue with a reasonable spend on free tests as an extra level of protection. Even for TDs.

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