Cabinet crumbling under double pressure from Covid and mica

Omicron response has public frustrated, while mica redress plan is a botched job

On mica, the Government finds itself in retreat a day after it unveiled its long-awaited plan to fix the thousands of homes in Donegal and beyond that are falling apart because of defective building material. Photograph: Joe Dunne

On mica, the Government finds itself in retreat a day after it unveiled its long-awaited plan to fix the thousands of homes in Donegal and beyond that are falling apart because of defective building material. Photograph: Joe Dunne

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All politicians must be dissemblers to a greater or lesser degree, but the Taoiseach is useless at disguising when he is annoyed in the Dáil chamber. And on Wednesday he couldn’t help himself snapping at Opposition TDs seeking to score points off him on the two issues that have dominated politics this week – Covid and mica. His Government now finds itself under fierce pressure on both fronts.

During Leaders’ Questions, phones pinged in the chamber with the news from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) media briefing – relayed to the Taoiseach by Labour leader Alan Kelly – that Ireland’s first case of the new Omicron variant had been confirmed. It will not be the last.

There is not yet any scientific consensus of the threat posed by the new variant - the most common phrase used by people in and around Government is “we just don’t know yet”. On the one hand, there are fears that it may be less amenable to vaccine protection than its predecessors; on the other, the experience in South Africa tends to suggest that, so far, it may be less serious. We’ll see.

Optimism

The threat from the new variant emerged just as Ministers and officials were beginning to permit themselves some optimism about the trajectory of the fourth wave. Cases have stabilised – albeit at a high level – and while hospitals remain under extreme pressure, they haven’t been overwhelmed. But the emergence of the variant has changed the mood.

The Department of Health’s own research shows the extent to which the country has been punched in the stomach. Levels of stress, frustration and anxiety have shot up, by some measures back to where they were in the spring when society was still mostly locked down.

In September, just 10 per cent of people thought the worst of the pandemic was ahead of us; two-thirds of people (66 per cent) believed the worst was over. Now just 29 per cent of people believe the worst is over, and 24 per cent think the worst is still ahead of us. Privately, politicians wonder how much more people can take. The pressure in Government is pretty intense. Right now they are afraid of being advised to impose more stringent restrictions that they don’t think will be observed – and then of being blamed when they don’t work. That is not an unrealistic scenario.

Retreat

On mica, the Government finds itself in retreat a day after it unveiled its long-awaited plan to fix the thousands of homes in Donegal and beyond that are falling apart because of defective building material. Both the Taoiseach and Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien were suggesting that the details of the scheme may now be changed in order to provide the affected householders with more cash. The opposition, led by Sinn Féin, and the campaigners, smell blood in the water.

The Government was faced with two choices, each with pros and cons. It could have undertaken to pay for everything. Or it could have made the case that the State is not – and shouldn’t be – legally liable for the costs of reinstating every brick and every square foot of the affected properties. It could have said that it will help, and will pay for most or nearly all the costs, but that it wouldn’t write a blank cheque for the restitution of large houses paid for with the taxes of people who rent smaller houses and apartments because they can’t afford to buy their own.

Both approaches have benefits, and both have drawbacks. But by announcing one approach while pretending it had the benefits of the other, though, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is another botched job.