The chairman of the Dáil’s Covid-19 committee has said witnesses can give video evidence in adherence with social distancing measures.
Independent TD Michael McNamara was responding to concerns raised by the former head of the HSE, Tony O'Brien who had questioned the advisability of having the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan, the current HSE chief executive Paul Reid and Jim Breslin, secretary general of the Department of Health.
Mr McNamara explained that witnesses at Tuesday’s meeting of the committee will be in the Dáil chamber and in Committee Room One from where they can give video evidence.
In an article in the Sunday Business Post, Mr O’Brien had pointed out that the three witnesses are the top three health officials in the country and they have been invited to participate in two consecutive two hour sessions.
Mr McNamara told RTÉ radio’s Today with Sarah McInerney show that the committee will be meeting in the Dáil chamber, with some witnesses also in Committee Room One.
"We'll be sitting in the Dáil chamber – the houses of the Oireachtas have taken advice on social distancing to make sure that all required social distancing is maintained, now the committee will be in the Dáil chamber and some witnesses will be in the Dáil chamber, we will also be taking witnesses by video link as Tony O'Brien suggested, from Committee Room One, that facility has been established so they will be in Leinster House, they will be in the Dáil so they can enjoy Dáil privilege – it is important to make sure that people are able to speak freely and haven't any concerns about divulging information etc, so some witnesses will be in the Dáil chamber and some witnesses will be in Committee Room One so considerable distance will be maintained."
Mr McNamara further explained that committee members will be in the Dáil chamber for two hours and then back in for another two hours as members of the Dáil have been doing throughout the pandemic, this will be in line with best practice and public health advice.
“We will be doing everything possible to ensure that witnesses aren’t in the chamber for more than two hours, but the other point is, obviously, we’ve invited witnesses – with considerable expertise in the area, we haven’t yet received any concerns (from witnesses).
“Any concerns that any witness has regarding public health, regarding other medical concerns, legal concerns or any concerns expressed by any witness will be considered fully by the committee with the professional advice if that is required,” he added.
When Mr O’Brien was asked would the three health officials not know what was and was not safe, he said that from his own experience of appearing before Oireachtas committees, raising concerns about how the committee went about doing their business “has been known to go down quite badly.
“I’ve had no contact with any of them to allow me make that view [about this committee, I’m just expressing a very general view. The reason I wrote the column is I am concerned there is a significant issue – I am slightly reassured by what the chairman has said, but it would be very good to have an absolute assurance that these witnesses are not going to be in the room with the committee or with each other, for such an extended period of time tomorrow.”
Mr McNamara reiterated that the issue had not been raised by any witnesses. “If this is raised by any witness it will be considered. But without it ever being raised, the safety of witnesses is of the utmost importance and it will be the first priority for this committee and we will be continuing to confer with the houses of the Oireachtas regarding the advice they have obtained on maintaining social distancing – whatever happens at the committee will essentially be the same as we have in the Dáil.