FG senators accuse Donnelly of communication blunders

Comments on working-from-home ahead of announcement likened to FF bailout interviews

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly came under sustained criticism at a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday evening for a series of recent media interviews in relation to the pandemic.

Sources said that Senator Mary Seery Kearney raised an issue with an interview given by the Fianna Fáil minister last week where he said that the Government was not at that time considering a work-from-home policy.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) met later that day and recommended that the Government revert to a policy of working from home where possible.

Ms Seery Kearney is understood to have compared the comments to a notorious interview given by Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey in 2010 when they denied talk of a potential EU-IMF bailout for the State.


Ms Kearney told the meeting that it gave the impression of saying one thing in the morning and doing another thing in the evening, criticising the communications strategy.

Her fellow senator Martin Conway also criticised an interview Mr Donnelly gave to Newstalk on Wednesday morning and said that it was “less than satisfactory.”

He also told the meeting that if the Government does not get the communications strategy on Covid right, it will start to lose the support of the public.

In relation to the midnight curfew for nightclubs and bars, which comes into effect from Thursday, Mr Conway told the meeting that the Government should be honest and say that it was effectively closing the sector.

The meeting also heard calls for the Government to reconsider its position on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP).

From Wednesday, the €250 PUP rate will reduce to €203 per week — the standard jobseeker’s rate. The PUP rate of €300 will reduce to €250. Sinn Féin has called on the Government to ensure workers receive a full payment in light of the new curfew.

Senator Jerry Buttimer is understood to have called on the Government to re-examine its stance during the parliamentary party meeting. He was also critical of the Government’s messaging on Covid-19.

On vaccines, the meeting heard that around 1,500 unvaccinated people are registering every day in order to receive a first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys told party colleagues that the country can give around 220,000 booster vaccines a week and that work is underway to increase this to 270,000.

Booster campaign

The Government is coming under increasing pressure to speed up its booster campaign after additional restrictions were announced on Tuesday in light of surging Covid-19 case numbers.

The meeting was told that while vaccination centres were currently seeing 120,000 people each week, this will be increased to 160,000. Extra pharmacists alongside GPs will also be used in administering booster shots.

At a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said hospitals and ICU units would be at capacity by Christmas if people did not limit their social contacts.

In what was described as a stark briefing to colleagues, Mr Martin said there was evidence of vaccination waning for those who were double-jabbed after five or six months. He said the HSE presentation to Cabinet on the current situation was very worrying and the feedback from ICUs was “concerning”.

“There is evidence of vaccinations waning after five or six months,” he told colleagues. This was “facilitating transmission” and there was a need for people to reduce contacts over the next few weeks as the booster programme was rolled out, he said.

The Taoiseach also told the meeting that 196,000 PCR tests had been conducted in the past seven days with a high level of positivity. While antigen tests have been rolled out broadly, he said, there also needed to be a strong advertising campaign around these.

He added that chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan was still worried about false negatives on antigen tests.

Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan said the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) had been too slow in making recommendations. He argued that the booster rollout should have begun sooner. He also called for calm and referred to Prof Paddy Mallon’s comments that it was inevitable that cases would rise once the economy reopened.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin also told the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting that eligible groups  who received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be able to get a booster after three months.

Dun Laoghaire TD Cormac Devlin, and senators Gerry Horkan, Pat Casey and Ollie Crowe raised concerns about the impact the new restrictions would have on the night time economy, for publicans and the associated workers, especially in the run up to Christmas.

Cork North Central TD Padraig O’Sullivan and Mr Devlin also raised the issue of substitution in secondary schools and the impact that shortages have had. The Taoiseach said Minister for Education Norma Foley was working closely with stakeholders and recognised how tough the issue was.

Meanwhile, Nphet's chair of modelling group Professor Philip Nolan has released data forecasting hospitalisations from Covid rising to 4,000 by the end of December.

As of 8am on Wednesday, 634 Covid-19 patients were in hospital, an increase of 20 on Tuesday.

Undetected cases

Case numbers will be determined by personal behaviour but also the level of natural immunity in the population, Prof Nolan stated.

The number of positive cases of Covid-19 recorded in the State as of Wednesday was 511,045 but some models suggest that the number of people who have had Covid-19 and were not tested may be one and a half times that amount. For every four cases that are detected, six will go undetected.

This equates to 1.3 million people or 22.5 per cent of the population who have had the virus and have therefore built up some level of immunity.

Prof Nolan said this was an optimistic scenario and if the level of natural immunity drops by a third it could see a peak in excess of 10,000 cases per day in December.

“This translates into more than 2,000 people in hospital and at least 400 people requiring critical care – these people couldn’t all be cared for in ICU, many would receive advanced respiratory support on wards and in high-dependency units,” he said on Twitter.

The vaccination programme has reduced the level of hospital admissions relative to the number of people getting Covid-19.

However, without further mitigation, there will be at least 200,000 cases in December, he warned, leading to at least 4,000 hospital admissions in a worst case scenario.

“A small proportion of a large number of cases is a dangerously large number of hospitalisations,” he tweeted.

He acknowledged the level of protection that the vaccine gives against infection - as opposed to serious illness - was “relatively low and the virus can spread easily”.

Prof Nolan said Nphet’s modelling includes the impact of booster doses on the elderly population, but even with those, “an optimistic scenario sees over 6,000 cases per day at the end November, and a total of 200,000 cases in December”.

He added: “This is avoidable. If we cut our contacts now, work on the basic mitigations, and take the booster when offered, we can prevent these infections and hospitalisations...

“Please stay home if symptomatic and seek a PCR test. Restrict movements and do your antigen tests if a close contact. Work from home if possible. Prioritise your contacts, wash hands, wear masks, avoid crowds and ventilate spaces.”

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times