School reopening: Infant and Leaving Cert classes may return on March 1st, says Taoiseach

Lifting of restrictions complicated by UK variant now accounting for 90 per cent of Covid-19 cases

Micheál Martin said  there was ‘huge concern’  over the growing prevalence of the UK variant. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Micheál Martin said there was ‘huge concern’ over the growing prevalence of the UK variant. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

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The Taoiseach has told the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting that it is possible Leaving Certificate students, junior and senior infants and fifth-year students will be able to return to the classroom on March 1st.

However, Micheál Martin said the UK B117 variant of Covid-19 now represents 90 per cent of all cases in the State, and this will complicate any relaxation of restrictions. He said reopening schools and the return of construction was a priority.

Mr Martin said the cabinet subcommittee on Covid-19 will meet on Thursday and discuss public health in the coming period, but there was “huge concern” in public health over the growing prevalence of the UK variant.

Sources at the meeting said Mr Martin indicated other students will likely return to school through the month of March as this will allow the HSE and Nphet to monitor the impact of the resumption of classes. He said the goal was to give Leaving Cert students “options and choice” and said “maximum options” should be given to third level students.

He told the meeting that by mid May, most over-70s will be vaccinated. He warned, however, that there will be a significant period of ongoing restrictions in March and April to get numbers down and to guard against the spread of variants.

Sources at the meeting said several members of the parliamentary party pushed for early access to Covid-19 vaccines for family carers, patients on dialysis and those with cancer, with Cormac Devlin and Dara Calleary making contributions.

Some members also criticised communications from the HSE and Department of Health, and called on Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to make improvements.

Mr Donnelly told the meeting he expected 80,000 vaccinations to be administered this week, and he had asked the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) to consider the vaccination sequence for certain groups, including high risk kidney-dialysis patients, people under 65 and those with underlying conditions.

Mr Martin said hundreds are still in hospital and many in ICU, and that, while there would be pressure to open up society, the Government was focused on suppressing the new variant and driving numbers down to a low level.

Mother and Baby Homes

The meeting also heard contributions on the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, and the appearance at the Oireachtas children’s committee by Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman. Cavan-Monaghan TD Niamh Smyth said Mr O’Gorman’s performance and answers on the issue were inadequate, sources said, and called on the Government to extend the lifespan of the Commission, which is due to be wound up at the end of the month. Ms Smyth claimed that the data rights of survivors were breached by the deletion of recordings of testimony they gave, and that the State owes them transparency. She also said she believed their testimonies could possibly be retrieved.

Survivors and advocates have called for an extension of the lifespan of the Commission, but Mr O’Gorman has been noncommittal on the matter.

However, other members of the parliamentary party said extending the commission could delay access to the databases it gathered, which survivors can submit requests to access once it transfers across to Mr O’Gorman’s department. The Minister has set up a specialist unit to deal with requests from survivors, who have complained that they have not been adequately dealt with by the Commission.

The Taoiseach told the meeting it was not clear why the Commission had chosen to delete some recordings made of interviews with survivors, and that Mr O’Gorman has written to the Commission seeking clarification on that.

Burning turf

Meanwhile the former Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen said Fianna Fáil should resist and reject any proposals to outlaw households burning turf.

He said households should be allowed to use turf, whether cut by themselves or purchased from commercial cutters.

It comes as Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan works on a plan to ban smoky coal nationwide, as well as considering bans on high moisture wood and peat products like peat briquettes – although Mr Ryan has made clear that households which have rights to extract turf from bogs for their own use will not be affected.

Mr Cowen said that introduction of retrofitting programmes being worked on by Mr Ryan would drive down turf usage in any event.

His concerns were echoed by Mr Calleary, the man who succeeded him as Minister for Agriculture, who also expressed concern on any movements to restrict domestic turf burning.

Jackie Cahill, the Tipperary TD, expressed concern about the use of peat for horticulture industries and stressed to the Taoiseach that a working group must deliver for horticulture and allow home produced peat to be extracted in 2021.

Senator Timmy Dooley told the meeting that the party’s position should back a Bill he has coming to the Seanad, which would ban smoky coal, but not turf and timber. He reminded colleagues that the parliamentary party previously backed his Bill and said it was the Fianna Fáil position “and we shouldn’t move from that”.

Senator Malcolm Byrne said there was a need to proceed with the nationwide smoky coal ban as soon as possible as 1,500 people die every year from poor air quality.

Sources said Mr Martin told colleagues he was “concerned” at the uneven pace of decarbonisation and the Just Transition process, and that some communities are being left behind, which should be addressed.

Ulster Bank

Carlow-Kilkenny TD John McGuinness told the meeting there should be an immediate Dáil debate on Ulster Bank, as speculation continues that its parent company Nat West is about to sell the Irish lender. He criticised the Government’s performance on banking issues, saying they showed “little or no interest in what’s happening”, saying people in arrears were being threatened and were preparing for evictions after the pandemic.

Responding, Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath said he couldn’t give a full response as the meeting was effectively being “live-streamed”, a reference to contemporaneous media coverage of the event. However, he said the Government was very active on the Ulster Bank issue, and had engaged with the Nat West chair and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK.

He said the Government is examining the impact of different scenarios that may emerge.

Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley also criticised the system for appointing the chairs of State Boards, with Mr Collins saying it had become a “cottage industry”. Mr Dooley said there was a need to act outside the public appointments service and to headhunt people to be chairs of State boards and semi state companies, but he cautioned against returning to the old system of political patronage.

Delicate phase

James Lawless, the Kildare North TD, raised the issue of why the Dáil is meeting in its current slimmed-down format in the convention centre. He said his interpretation of the constitution is that there would be no reason privilege can’t extend to virtual meetings, and that the current situation was farcical with members driving from Kerry and Roscommon to sit in offices for virtual meetings at a time when unnecessary journeys were supposed to be avoided.

The Land Development Agency Bill was debated and largely welcomed by TDs.

There was also some criticism of the vaccination centres in some counties, sources said.

The meeting also heard concerns raised by Cormac Devlin about the case of Irish citizen Richard O’Halloran, whose lawyers say is being prevented from leaving China. The Taoiseach said discussions over Mr O’Halloran are at a delicate phase, but he is hopeful it can be resolved soon.

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