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Basic schoolboy error in changes to vaccine and quarantine programmes

Inside Politics: Recent moves in government make refloating of jammed ship on Suez Canal look ordinary

Yes it’s April Fool’s Day folks but there are no pranks here this morning, just a lot of people, who should know better, looking very foolish indeed.

In the past 24 hours we have seen two spectacular manoeuvres within government that would make the refloating of a jammed 400 metre cargo ship on the Suez Canal look ordinary.

The first was a revised vaccine programme. The second looks like a dramatic adjustment of the mandatory hotel quarantine programme.

There is a concept in law that is quite useful in politics too and that is foreseeability.

And the circumstances that brought the changes in both situations were entirely foreseeable for months.

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) was absolutely right in deciding that priority for vaccinations should be done on the ground of age. But if it's right now, why has it taken so many months for it to be right.

Anyone who in the past year has scrolled through the data of the weekly reports of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre will see how obvious the age factor is.

I had a quick look at the latest data yesterday. The overall percentages have been more or less the same each time I have looked at them. The stark reality is that 92 per cent of the 4,667 people who have died with Covid-19 were 65 years of age and over. A further 5.2 per cent were over 55.

That means only 2.6 per cent of people who died were under 55.

That’s 126 people out of 4,667. Only 50 people under the age of 45 have died, slightly over 1 per cent. That’s less people dying in that age bracket than in a bad flu season.

Professor Karina Butler was correct that a 25 year old is 70 times less likely to die from the virus than a 70-year-old.

But it begs the question why this approach was not used before, because that reality is indubitable. It bears repeating. 97.3 percent of deaths were over 55.

The reverse led to a barrage of criticism from the Opposition and also from unions representing front-line workers, such as gardaí, bus drivers, teachers and child-care workers. Of course, it is desirable that younger people in those areas get vaccinated as soon as possible but the reality is that, as Professor Karina Butler pointed out they are at far less risk.

The volte face, while logical, has put a lot of noses out of joint in the Government's two larger parties. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar had todefend the change to his TDs.

As Jennifer Bray reports, he told meeting the change to a predominantly age-based priority system could have been handled better.

“Mr Varadkar is understood to have said that there should have been greater consultation with unions and stakeholders around the plan to move to an age-based system rather than an age and profession-based system,” she reports.

Over at the Fianna Fáil meeting there was similar angst. Minister for Education Norma Foley said the rationale would need to be explained.

Offaly TD Barry Cowen said he understood it was based on “science and reasoning” but said a group workers in high-risk areas would feel deflated having been assured they were higher up the list.

As Jack Horgan-Jones reports: “Now suddenly to pull the rug from under them is far from ideal and most disheartening and disturbing for those cohorts,” he said ahead of the meeting.

Mandatory Hotel Quarantine

Everybody knew the list would be added to as a new surge of Covid-19 affects Europe and beyond. But the proposal by Nphet’s travel advisory committee to add 43 new countries including France, Germany and the US raised alarm bells throughout the Government.

Politically there were some unappetising prospects in sight. Seventeen EU countries would be subject to mandatory hotel quarantine. No other EU State has such a stringent regime. Besides the diplomatic implications, there was the practical reality that the capacity of 2,500 hotel beds under the system would not be sufficient.

The proposal – which now looks like it will be subject to a full Cabinet decision next week – prompted a missive from Attorney General Paul Gallagher.

Our colleague Cliff Taylor was the first to disclose this new development yesterday. As we report it has led to a furious row within the Government, and with Brussels.

The Attorney General's letter was said to be "very clear" in expressing concerns that health officials have not followed the correct process or adhered to the legislation the Oireachtas passed on quarantine when formulating their advice.

There was concern that the proposal to add 43 countries had “over-reached” and has “misinterpreted the law we passed” and that European treaty rights and human rights had not been fully considered. Included in that is the right to travel in the EU.

As our reports notes a source saying, Nphet went “way beyond variants to include countries with more Covid than us”.

But it begs the question, why was a law passed only this month being operated in such a wrong fashion? And why is the issue coming up only now when big and powerful countries and neighbours are about to be added?

Already it has given an impression that there is a two-track quarantine system, one softer one for richer western countries, another tough one for poorer developing countries.

That impression is wrong but all of this mess was foreseeable. The law does emphasise new mutations and variants of interest when drawing up a list of Category 2 countries. These are the Brazilian and the South African variants. But one interpretation is that it also allows Covid hot-spots to be considered, especially ones where the UK variant, B-117, is dominant.

Nphet included countries with the Brazil and South African variants but also loads of European countries with a 14-day incidence rate of 500 cases per 100,0000 or more.

That’s what ran foul of the Attorney General’s interpretation of the Act, reportedly. Austria was the only EU State included in the original list of 33 but the South African variant had established itself there. The same could arguably be said for France now where the Brazilian and South African mutations account for six per cent of cases.

Why is this really basic definition of what constitutes a Category 2 country only being clarified now?That seems to be a basic schoolboy error on the part of the Government.

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Playbook

In the vast prairies otherwise known as the Dublin Convention Centre, it is difficult to get used to the Dáil sittings, or consider them as normal.

In the morning, there will be a lot of interest when Stephen Donnelly comes into the House to talk about vaccine rollout and the changes announced this week.

Leaders Questions begin at midday followed by order of business and the weekly votes on legislation and motions.

In the afternoon there will be statements on the Prime Time investigation revelations about medical information of children with autism being shared. The rural independent TDs also have a motion on Project Ireland 2040.