Irish Times Political Correspondent Jennifer Bray asked Taoiseach Micheál Martin a question that is doubtless on the minds of many people: “Are we going to emerge into something resembling a normal life this year? Are we talking about summer or midsummer?”
“I think there are a number of key factors right now,” he replied. “First, the hospitalisations are too high, people in intensive care are too high, and have been. And what has concerned me most over the last three weeks are frontline health care workers ... The pressure is unbearable.
“So, our first obligation is to relieve pressure on our hospital workers, reduce the number of people getting ill, and number of people dying from Covid-19. That means maintaining Level 5.
“I believe we need to engage in a prolonged suppression of the virus,” Martin said later. “We’ve always been very clear that it’s very dynamic and it’s very dependent delivery of the vaccine.”
The Taoiseach was talking to Jennifer Bray as part of the Irish Times Winter Nights festival, a series of online talks taking place each evening this week.
The host posed a question for the Taoiseach that had been sent to The Irish Times via social media: “Are the current policies on reducing deaths positive cases and transmission rates Covid-19 worth the economic physical and mental health cost to society at large?”
“The answer I think is yes,” said Martin. “Your industry is very much a function of what an ecosystem can support. I mean we must protect human life in the first instance, and then prevent severe illness. And this virus, unfortunately is a deadly one, and kills people, and over 3,000 people have died in the Republic of Ireland, and 1,700 in the north of Ireland. It’s not putting one against the other.”
Asked about the timeline regarding the rollout of vaccines in Ireland, Martin said: “I would still think that April, May, June will be significant months in terms of vaccination. And I believe that after July ... we would have our over-60s, and over-70s vaccinated, which means your mortality rates come significantly down.
“By May-June, notwithstanding difficulties, I think we should be in a position where we have a surplus of vaccines,” Martin added.
Another reader, Andrew, said that so far, the vaccine rollout in Ireland had been “painfully slow” compared with that in the UK.
“Simply, the UK went through a different authorisation process. They use an emergency order process,” Martin replied. “Personally, I don’t favour that approach, and there’s some risk attached to it. Secondly, Britain have decided to widen significantly the interval period between the first and the second dose, which I do not agree with myself. I’m not an expert on this but the data from the company says it has to be within 21 to 28 days of the first injection.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Bray noted that Martin was celebrating 10 years as leader of Fianna Fáil this month. He said he was too busy to celebrate the milestone meaningfully, and said he unwound these days by walking, and by watching The Crown and Fawlty Towers.
Remarking on earlier moments in his career, Martin said: “I can recall when I was a backbench TD when we first went into coalition government. [There] was the feeling that that was in itself an abandonment of the core principle. And I spoke over time, as a young person in the party saying, ‘I see no problem with going into coalition government’.
“And I do believe politicians have to be prepared, and leaders have to be prepared, to break taboos and to do things that perhaps previous generations wouldn’t have comprehended.”
The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival – supported by Peugeot – runs until Friday, January 29th. Tomorrow’s guests are 16-year-old award-winning nature writer Dara McAnulty, actor Gabriel Byrne and Washington-based CNN commentator John King.
Tickets are available from irishtimes.com/winternights. A single price of €50 admits ticket holders to all events at the festival. Irish Times digital subscribers can purchase tickets at the discounted price of €25 – just make sure you are signed in and the discount will be automatically applied.