Taoiseach acknowledges frustration at pace of Covid-19 vaccine rollout

Varadkar says he hopes September target for vaccinating all adults can be beaten

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said a range of new supports specifically aimed at young people impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic are being considered. File photograph: The Irish Times

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said a range of new supports specifically aimed at young people impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic are being considered. File photograph: The Irish Times

 

The Taoiseach has spoken with HSE chief executive Paul Reid about the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines through the GP sector, the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party was told this evening.

It comes amid strong criticism of aspects of the rollout at private meetings of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators on Wednesday.

The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting heard strong criticism of the rollout on Wednesday evening, with former minister Dara Calleary raising serious concerns about the ability of the HSE to manage community rollout of the vaccine programme after the experience of giving it to the over-85s.

Doctors groups have criticised the communications underlying the rollout, with GPs describing delays, incomplete deliveries and difficulties in managing the process due to a lack of clarity on when shipments would land.

Sources at the Fianna Fáil meeting said that Mr Calleary, who stepped down as minister for agriculture after attending the Oireachtas golf society dinner in August, was angry that GPs are only being contacted now about how to administer the vaccine to house-bound patients, two months into the programme.

Mr Martin acknowledged the frustrations expressed by TDs, telling the meeting that he spoke with Mr Reid on Wednesday and discussed the issue.

He told the meeting that he had been in direct contact with the HSE about a dedicated line to respond to queries on the vaccine rollout and to assist GPs, and promised there would be engagement with the HSE to “ensure there is proper communication”.

In response to criticism of the rollout, Ministers of State Anne Rabbitte and Mary Butler defended the programme, saying that the HSE and GPs are working flat out to deliver vaccines, following criticism from TDs such as Joe O’Flaherty.

Kildare North TD James Lawless said that Ireland should take up unused vaccines by other EU member states, and use EU trade derogations to source deals outside the EU. He said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should be supplied into healthcare centres ahead of approval. He said that he had prepared a memo on vaccinations, which he intended to distribute to the Taoiseach and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

Meanwhile, a range of new supports specifically aimed at young people impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic are being considered, Mr Martin said.

Mr Martin said increased supports should be made available for young people following Covid-19, after members of the parliamentary party raised concerns about the particular impact of the pandemic on younger people.

Mr Martin told the meeting that there will be a need for “targeted supports” for those who have missed milestones or been held back from progressing in school, college or their career.

The Taoiseach told the meeting that vaccines were having a “dramatic impact” on Covid in hospitals, with positive early signs in nursing homes. He said there was progress being made on Covid with most people adhering to the guidelines as key metrics improve.

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien told the parliamentary party meeting he has been leasing with restaurateurs to facilitate supports for restaurants and “streamline” processes to allow outdoor dining over summer, sources said.

Separately, Mr Martin said the UK’s move to delay checks on goods going into Northern Ireland was “unilateral” as well as “unhelpful and a cause for concern”, urging that issues be worked through “in a calm way”.

Also, speaking ahead of the broadcast of an RTÉ Investigates programme that examined the legacy surrounding the practice of illegal adoptions, Mr Martin told the party meeting that the issue of illegal adoption was “shocking” and that those impacted would be helped and supported. He said it was critical that they had access to their identity and that they would be helped by legislation on tracing, with heads of bill expected at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday evening, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said he believed the target of vaccinating every adult in the country by September can be met but he “hopes we can do better than that”.

He made the remarks at the private weekly meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, where some contributors expressed concern over the pace at which the Covid-19 vaccination programme is progressing.

Sources said former ministers John Paul Phelan, Regina Doherty and Seán Kyne raised issues with the rollout.

Mr Phelan was concerned at the failure to meet the vaccination target of 100,000 doses being administered last week, despite it being the first week of the Government’s new strategy for the virus.

The HSE confirmed on Wednesday that it administered 81,843 doses between February 22nd-28th.

Mr Phelan is also said to have taken issue with an email Mr Varadkar sent to the parliamentary party which he said told them to ‘stay on message’ in relation to Covid-19.

The Carlow-Kilkenny TD asked if the email had been sent to Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly of Fianna Fáil as well - an apparent reference to issues that arose in Government communications on the pandemic in recent weeks.

However, sources suggested that Mr Phelan said this “facetiously” and in a “tongue in cheek” manner.

Senator Regina Doherty told the meeting that GPs in the village of Ratoath, Co Meath had yet to receive vaccines and over-85s in the area had not yet been give appointments and were getting “anxious”.

Her fellow Senator Seán Kyne also raised issues about the vaccine rollout for older people, including the case of an 89-year-old who he said had been in hospital for 22 days but has been told they will have to be vaccinated in the community.

In his remarks to the meeting, Mr Varadkar said he expects more than 80 percent of people to be offered a first-dose vaccine by the end of June.

He said he thought the September vaccine target could be met but he hoped “we can do better than that”.

The meeting was told that, if approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on March 11th, the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be in deployed in the country in April.

On recent targets not being met, Mr Varadkar said this was outside of the Government’s control as it was down to an AstraZeneca order not being met.

Mr Varadkar suggested targets will not be met from time to time, but they will be exceeded in other weeks.

Separately, Mr Varadkar spoke about plans to close Bank of Ireland branches around the country.

He said some landmark buildings in towns and villages nationwide could potentially be used for other purposes for their local communities.

A motion put forward by Mr Kyne on the speedy implementation of the Moorehead Report on pay and conditions for city and county councillors was unanimously passed by the parliamentary party.

Councillors will get a pay rise reported to be almost €8,000 - up from around €17,000 - if the report is implemented.

Back at the Fianna Fáil meeting, Senator Malcolm Byrne called for the voting age to be dropped to 16 for the local and European elections in 2024. There was support for a series of proposals and documents put forward by Mr Byrne for increasing young people’s participation and ensuring young people who have lost out during the pandemic are supported when the country is recovering. This included proposals for a task force to examine targeted supports for young people.

Fianna Fáil Dublin South West TD John Lahart criticised the interaction of the planning system with judicial reviews (JRs), saying that JRs and Strategic Housing Developments are “making a mess of the system of planning”.

He said there was a lack of transparency and democratic input, and that the judicial review system was “predominantly available to those with resources”.

Responding to his concerns, Mr O’Brien said that he is undertaking a review of planning legislation, and said he was examining an “environmental court” system to replace the judicial reviews, and that a cabinet subcommittee was examining the proposal.

The parliamentary party passed motions by Senator Timmy Dooley and Cathal Crowe TD calling for targeted supports for the aviation and tourism sectors. The party approved plans to extend and improve business supports to the end of 2021, for a bank moratorium for workers in the two sectors, and to keep VAT at 9 per cent until 2025 while waiving rates until the end of the year.

The meeting also heard calls for passport services to be restarted.

There was also discussion of ongoing banking issues, with Finance Committee chair John McGuinness raising concerns about personal accountability at stockbroker Davy after it was fined €4.1 million in relation to a bond deal which involved staff at the seeking to make a profit from the deal, which involved a client, without informing the client or the firm’s compliance officers. Mr McGuinness said there should be reforms to allow the Central Bank to “name and shame” professionals.

Mr Martin issues around the banking sector had led to “ongoing sloganeering from the opposition”, and that the Government’s approach would be to protect jobs and employment, and that An Post would be well positioned to help offset the impact of bank closures on towns.

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