Donnelly says he discussed moving to Level 4 restrictions with CMO before Nphet meeting on Sunday

Minister for Health tells Dáil he heard of Level 5 proposal around 7pm on Sunday

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he discussed the possibility of moving restrictions to Level 4 with Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan on Sunday before the meeting of Nphet (National Public Health Emergency Team).

He told a specially convened debate in the Dáil that the first time he heard Level 5 restrictions mentioned was on Sunday evening after the Nphet meeting.

In the ongoing row over the chronology of events last weekend about the leaking of the Level 5 recommendation, Mr Donnelly told the Dáil:

“I received a text around lunchtime on Saturday from the chief medical officer to say he had called a meeting of Nphet for the following day. I texted the Taoiseach to let him know.”


He texted Dr Holohan early on Sunday morning and they spoke by phone.

“We discussed the current situation and the possibility of moving to level 4. I conveyed my belief that it was important Nphet adhere to the parameters set out in the framework for each level. I contacted the Taoiseach afterwards.”

“Around 7pm I took part in a video call with the chief medical officer, the deputy chief medical officer and the secretary general” of the Department of Health.

“That is when I was informed of the recommendation to move to level 5.

“I updated the Taoiseach after this call. A cabinet Covid committee was convened for noon the following day and cabinet met late on the Monday as well.”

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane asked why the Minister did not “push back” when the CMO said he was so concerned that he might recommend going to Level 4.

“The Taoiseach and Tánaiste were saying they were caught on the hop and that was patently untrue.”

Mr Donnelly said: “Did I try to influence the recommendations? Off course I didn’t. I would never have done such a thing. Nphet’s’s job is to provide best public health advice they can to Government.”

‘Agatha Christie mystery’

Labour TD Duncan Smith said “we are partaking in some kind of Agatha Christie-type mystery as to who said what and when.”

He said they had to discuss what happened last weekend because it had massive implications for people’s confidence “in you, in Nphet, in the Taoiseach and in the Tánaiste who played a particularly foul role in this sad, mean affair”.

He asked why Mr Donnelly only phoned Dr Holohan until Sunday morning. “This was Tony Holohan coming back two days early in a tightening of this pandemic. He has more trust from the public than any of us in this chamber, present or absent put together.”

He also asked when the Minister saw the letter “because it was the leaking of that letter that caused absolute panic”.

The Minister said that on Sunday the CMO “had more information than he had on Saturday because at lunchtime on Saturday the numbers of the day wouldn’t have been in.”

Pressed about the leaking of Nphet's letter of recommendation Mr Donnelly said "I know RTÉ reported Level 5 on the news at 9 o'clock.

“I don’t think they got into detail as to what’s in the letter so I don’t know if RTÉ had the letter. It’s possible they were simply told it was Level 5.”

Asked by Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall if he could give an assurance that he or any of his associates did not leak the letter, the Minister said “neither I nor anyone who works for me leaked the letter”.

The Minister concluded the debate by saying “this is going to be a hard winter for the people we represent in so many different ways”.

He said “we need to help each other and to support each other and we need to push this God awful virus back and open up our country and our society and our economy and our communities as much as we possibly can”.


Earlier in the Dáil, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said that nobody in Government had any indication that Level 5 restrictions were being considered until Sunday.

Speaking of the controversy about the announcement that the highest level of restriction was recommended, Mr Varadkar said it was a shock and it was out of the blue.

On Monday Mr Varadkar criticised Dr Holohan and Nphet (National Public Emergency Team) saying the recommendation to move to Level 5 had not be “thought through” and there had not been “prior consultation” with the Government.

However, Dr Holohan confirmed on Wednesday evening that he had spoken with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on Sunday morning, before the meeting, and had shared his concerns and those of members of the team.

Social Democrats co-leader Rosin Shortall earlier called on Mr Varadkar to apologise to Dr Holohan, saying he was being “very irresponsible” and “playing a dangerous political game”.

She also called on Taoiseach Micheál Martin to “pick up the phone and call the other party leaders” so there could be a cross-party response to Covid-19.

Speaking on RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland, Ms Shortall said that Mr Martin needed to "bring people with him at political level", all the political parties needed to "be on the same page" to take steps to "drive down the virus."

Speaking in the Dáil on Thursday, Mr Varadkar told Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty that the three Government party leaders were informed on Saturday that Nphet was meeting on Saturday.

“There was no suggestion, not even an inkling of level 5” restrictions at that point, he said.

Had they known that they would have sought a briefing on Saturday night, he insisted.

“A decision of such gravity is one that has to be thought through and talked through.”

Mr Varadkar said rejected Mr Doherty’s claim he had “played the man, not the ball” on RTE.

The Tanaiste said in relation to the Chief Medical Officer that “I didn’t say a bad word about him” to some opposition jeering. “He’s somebody I respect immensely.”

“Covid is nobody’s fault and nobody in the Government is trying to engage in any kind of blame game. That’s for others.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald earlier said “a contrived spat” between Nphet and the Government was not needed at this time.

A political “who done it” was not a priority, but there was a need for absolute clarity on the timeline of when the Government was first alerted to the possibility of a move to Level 5.

During leaders’ questions in the Dáil, Mr Doherty claimed that “instead of setting a plan to deal with the situation in our hospitals, the Government have allowed narrative to prevail, that it is everybody’s fault bar theirs”.

The Donegal TD said they now knew it was not the case that Nphet’s advice was a surprise and everything that the CMO could have done “he did to keep the Government in the loop”.


He said Mr Varadkar had gone “on the national broadcaster and took the legs from under our Chief Medical Officer”.

He said the CMO “called it out” that the reason they were considering Level 5 restrictions is because of the lack of capacity in the health service.

Mr Doherty said “the real reason you made your statement is because NPHET called that out. The reason we are even contemplating these stringent restrictions is the lack of capacity in our health system. You have been minister for health and taoiseach and you’ve been in government for the past nine years. You’ve left the State extremely vulnerable with regard to our number of ICU beds.”

But Mr Varadkar said the number of patients in ICU with the virus is around 25. “We have the ability to go to 360 beds with surge capacity, and there is also the option of using the private hospitals”.

He told Mr Doherty: “I know what you’re trying to do, namely, play the blame game. You’re trying to set it up so that if the country has to go back into severe lockdown, you can blame the Government and say it is all down to hospital capacity.”

The Tánaiste said of the CMO “I didn’t say a bad word about him” to some opposition jeering. “He’s somebody I respect immensely, somebody I have worked with very closely on very difficult issues”.

Mr Varadkar said he spoke to the CMO by phone on Tuesday and “we cleared the air. Neither of us has any issue with the other”.

He said “nobody in Government had any indication that a Level 5 restriction was being considered until Sunday and that was confirmed by the CMO at the press conference last night”.

First inkling

He said the Level 5 recommendation came only three days after Nphet said it did not strongly support a move to Level 3.

“I was informed on Saturday as was the Taoiseach and the leader of the Green party that a meeting of Nphet had been called for Sunday.”

He said the first inkling he had on Sunday that Level 5 was being considered was after the Nphet meeting he received confirmation in writing at 8.30pm.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy asked the Tánaiste:

“In hindsight given the escalating numbers do you regret interview with Claire Byrne do you accept it has been a distraction in the fight against the virus. Do you accept that the primary focus this week has been the mending of feences. Indeed you’ve just said that you’d had a telephone call to clear the air. And when we really should be focusing on putting our collective efforts together to fight this virus.”

Mr Varadkar agreed the events of Sunday and Monday “all of them, are a distraction from what we now need to do which is to fight the virus together”.