Covid-19: Taoiseach tells TDs world will be ‘very different’ by June

Fianna Fáil members criticise teaching unions over Leaving Cert students

A meeting of the parliamentary party heard questions on if the figures of new Covid infections will be low enough to allow for a return to school. File photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

A meeting of the parliamentary party heard questions on if the figures of new Covid infections will be low enough to allow for a return to school. File photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

 

Covid-19 vaccines will make the world “very different” but the State is now facing into the “hardest quarter” of the pandemic, Fianna Fáil TDs have heard.

Micheál Martin told his parliamentary party on Wednesday that there would be significant numbers of people vaccinated by the end of June. He said the “world will be very different in June” and that there will be “room for manouevre around decision making”.

However, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath told his colleagues that the State was heading into the “hardest quarter” of the pandemic.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he expected the situation in hospitals to continue to deteriorate over the next few weeks. Pressure would increase, including in crticial care, before they improve, he said.

The meeting heard calls for the Leaving Cert format to be reexamined and for consideration to be given to using predicted grades. There was also strong criticism of teachers’ unions for their resistance to returning to classrooms earlier this month.

Kildare North TD James Lawless said he was disappointed at how the unions had approached the issue, adding that they had threatened industrial action over 5 per cent of students returning for 60 per cent of the time while 100 per cent of the space in school buildings was available.

Mr Lawless told the meeting that workers in healthcare, gardaí, emergency services, retail, public transport and many other sectors had kept going to deliver essential services during the pandemic. He said the provision of education to Leaving Cert students was also an essential service.

Senator Lisa Chambers said unions need to step up in particular when it comes to getting special needs and vulnerable children back to school.

During a wide-ranging debate on Covid-19 education, lasting around 90 minutes, Dublin South West TD John Lahart questioned whether the numbers of new Covid-19 infections would fall low enough to allow for a return to school, or if students would end up losing more time.

Mr Lahart also asked whether schools would have to be closed again at some point in the future, but told the meeting “let’s not let the virus decide the fate of the Leaving Cert”, and that certainty was needed for children in exam years.

Senator Malcolm Byrne suggested that Leaving Certificate students should be given extra time during their exams or a greater choice of questions, if the exams go ahead.

In a thinly veiled criticism of Minister for Higher and Further Education Simon Harris, Mr Byrne said Minister for Education Norma Foley should speak about third level education more as the Fine Gael man was more interested in speaking about health. Mr Byrne also said there should be additional supports, and that if the option of predicted grades is taken up, the algorithm used needs to be audited early and explained to students.

Mr Donnelly also defended the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, saying that new figures on the number administered to date would see the State move up into “around third” position in the European Union.

He said vaccination data should be available on the Government’s online Covid-19 information hub by this weekend, and expects that data will shortly be published daily and included in the Covid tracker app.

He said the vaccine is being administered seven days a week, with a view to introducing 24 hour coverage if it was useful to cover-off night shift healthcare workers or other categories.

Mayo TD Dara Calleary said there needed to be clarity on when GPs and their staff are getting the vaccine, and that family carers, paramedics and home helps are also on the frontline and should be vaccinated soon.

The Taoiseach told the meeting that there are some issues emerging around Brexit, with some companies having difficulty in getting goods to market. He said customs declarations are expected to increase from 2 million to 20 million, which would create issues.

Mr McGrath said he believed fisheries would benefit strongly from the EU Brexit fund, under which Ireland is set to receive €1 billion.

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