Taoiseach Micheál Martin has tested positive for Covid-19, leading to the cancellation of his St Patrick's Day face-to-face meeting with US president Joe Biden at the White House.
Plans for the Taoiseach’s St Patrick’s Day programme have been thrown into chaos by the news. The meeting between the Taoiseach and Mr Biden will now go ahead virtually in videoconference form, due to start at 2.30pm Irish time.
Mr Martin was attending the Ireland Funds dinner in the National Building Museum in Washington on Wednesday night, part of a programme of events in the US capital this week, when he received the news. Before the news about the Taoiseach's positive test, the event was addressed by Mr Biden, who received a rapturous reception from the 700 guests.
The dinner, held every year on the eve of the Taoiseach’s visit to the oval Office to meet the US president, is a major event in the Irish-American political calendar.
In his speech, Mr Biden praised Mr Martin and paid tribute to the links between Ireland and the US, drawing heavily on the experience of his own family.
The White House said Mr Biden’s speech ended at 7.54pm and he immediately left the podium. His motorcade left the venue four minutes later. He arrived at the venue at 7.10pm, officials said.
Irish ambassador Dan Mulhall told guests at the dinner that Mr Martin had tested positive in a precautionary PCR test earlier, after a member of the wider Irish delegation visiting Washington had tested positive on routine antigen test.
The White House insists that anyone visiting must undergo Covid-19 tests, with all visitors screened the day before they are scheduled to attend.
The first indication that something was amiss regarding the Taoiseach came as the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi was finishing a speech. During her address, she welcomed the British ambassador to the event but warned her and the British government that if the border “hardened”, there would be no US-UK trade deal.
Ms Pelosi had been scheduled to make an award to Mr Martin.
Towards the end of her speech, she appeared to say that Mr Martin was on a call with European leaders. The Taoiseach had earlier been sitting next to Ms Pelosi.
Mr Mulhall then took the stage. He said Mr Martin had tested positive for Covid -19 but was feeling well.
Mr Martin, his officials who formed part of his delegation visiting Washington this week as well as travelling and resident journalists had to be tested.
Ahead of the St Patrick’s Day visit to the White House on Thursday, the Covid-19 testing was carried out on Wednesday afternoon and early evening.
The Taoiseach tested negative after undergoing an antigen test. However, one of his colleagues in the delegation tested positive, and he took a precautionary PCR test, which also proved positive.
Mr Martin then underwent a precautionary PCR test.
The White House indicated that Mr Biden was not considered a close contact.
However, the planned meeting with Mr Biden in the Oval Office on Thursday as well as the traditional shamrock ceremony will not take place, officials said. There were discussions between American and Irish officials about the potential of holding a virtual ceremony.
This week was to have been Mr Martin’s first and possibly final opportunity to travel to the White House as Taoiseach. Last year, the trip was cancelled due to Covid. Mr Martin is scheduled to rotate out of the role of Taoiseach next December.