Donnelly admits unlikely 700,000 people will be vaccinated by end of March

Minister faces trenchant Dáil criticism for ‘over promising’ on Covid-19 vaccine rollout

A file image of Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly who has been accused by the Opposition ‘over promising’ when it comes to the vaccine rollout. Photograph: Julien Behal

A file image of Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly who has been accused by the Opposition ‘over promising’ when it comes to the vaccine rollout. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has signalled that the target to have 700,000 people vaccinated against Covid-19 by the end of March is unlikely to be met.

Mr Donnelly said in the Dáil the target was “heavily caveated” and conditional on the supply of vaccines including those from AstraZeneca, as he came under trenchant criticism over his vaccine rollout timelines.

In reply to questions from Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane he said Ireland was due to receive 600,000 doses from AstraZeneca but the company was no longer committing to that figure.

This led to testy exchanges with opposition TDs.

Social Democrats joint leader Róisín Shortall accused the Minister of “over promising” on the vaccine and called on him to “be up-front with people and give us the honest answers”.

But the Minister said he was asked for “indicative guidelines” and he said “they were not promises but a genuine attempt to give a timeline”.

Mr Cullinane accused the Minister of giving a “completely unsatisfactory” speech with no information on the new timelines for vaccine delivery.

Mr Donnelly also appeared to quote an incorrect figure on the number of vaccines coming into the country this week.

Mr Donnelly told Labour leader Alan Kelly that around 48,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine were being brought into the State this week.

However, the Health Service Executive confirmed on Wednesday that this week, 24,570 doses of the Pfizer BioNtech vaccine were received.

“I asked him how many vaccines,” Mr Kelly told the Dáil on Thursday. “He said 48,000 - he’s wrong”.

“How can we have a Minister coming in and not knowing how many vaccines came into the country this week,” Mr Kelly said. “It’s scary, very scary.”

A spokesman for Mr Donnelly did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the apparent disparity.

Mr Kelly said the Minister should not have to have responsibility for quarantining which he said should be a matter for the Minister for Justice.

He added Mr Donnelly was under severe pressure and it was “uncomfortable” to watch.

Mr Donnelly also said he had asked the department to put an agreement in place to vaccinate dentists. They were clinically trained, they “give people injections all the time and there have been initial discussions I understand between the Department (of Health) and dentists”.

Pharmacists would also be included, he said. A deal had been done with them but it was an “operational matter” for the HSE and not a political one as to when they would receive the vaccine.

In the controversy over the AstraZeneca’s contract commitments he said the European Commission was in “active and pretty robust” discussions with the company which had not yet given commitments for delivery in the second half of March.

“AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been delivered to other countries outside of the EU” and the European Commission “wishes to find out how the funds that it has provided to AstraZeneca were used, given the absence of agreed doses of the vaccine.

“Greater control measures to monitor the export of vaccines and associated transparency measures may be the best mechanisms to facilitate this process.”

The exchanges came as the Minister opened a debate and question and answer session on the Covid-19 vaccination programme.

Mr Donnelly said that “while it is anticipated that this (AstraZeneca delay) should not impact on a start date for the roll-out of the vaccination to the over-70s living in the community, its impact upon the pace of vaccination throughout February and March is still difficult to gauge at present”.

He told Mr Kelly that having every adult resident in the State vaccinated by September was based on “provisional” timelines and dependent on commitments given.

Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd said there was a huge shortage of vaccines in Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Drogheda with only half of healthcare workers receiving the jab.

He said hospitals in the south and south-east had received their full complement and there was “abuse” of the vaccination programme in the Coombe and other hospitals.

Mr Donnelly said the rollout was an operational matter for the HSE. He said that four hospital groups were involved initially but it was quickly rolled out to others.

Sinn Féin TD Imelda Munster said she had received reports that “many workers who do not have contact with patients, such as clerical workers have received the vaccine ahead of staff who have direct contact with patients”. She said the priority list does not appear to be adhered to.

Independent TD Catherine Connolly said she was “really angry” that the Minister did not use his time to deal with practical issues such as spare vaccines being incorrectly used and the cost of the vaccine contract.