Fine Gael party meeting hears criticism of Donnelly

Varadkar suggests church services should be able to return with limited number next month

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has suggested that the target of vaccinating 82 per cent of adults by the end of June can still be met but supplies of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be needed to do it.

His remarks came at a private meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting where Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was criticised for his handling of the response to the pandemic in recent weeks.

The meeting also heard criticism of Sinn Féin’s social media and voter database operations, with the Tánaiste describing it as “dodgy”.

Former minister Michael Ring launched an attack on the Fianna Fáil minister, claiming Mr Donnelly had "foot in mouth disease" due to his abandoned proposal to investigate whether under-30s should be vaccinated against Covid-19 ahead of older age groups to try to reduce the spread of the virus.


Mr Ring also criticised Mr Donnelly’s handling of the mandatory hotel quarantine system and restrictions on church services.

According to sources Mr Varadkar said he was “shocked” to read The Irish Times report on Mr Donnelly’s comments about exploring the possibility of vaccinating the under 30s but said that Taoiseach Micheál Martin had dealt with the issue quickly.

On religious services Mr Varadkar is understood to have said they were not being outlawed and the Government had written to church leaders to reassure them on this.

He suggested church services should be able to return with limited number next month.

Mr Varadkar outlined how a phased opening of personal services and construction is expected next month but there will be no advice to Government from public health experts until the middle of next week.

Vaccine targets

There has been concern about meeting the Government's mid-summer vaccination target in the wake of the an announcement of reduced deliveries of the Astra Zeneca vaccine to Ireland this month.

Johnson and Johnson are to resume deliveries of its vaccine to the EU after the the European Medicines Agency (EMA) confirmed its benefits outweighed the risk of blood clots as a very rare side effect.

The deliveries had been halted after there were eight reported cases of this amongst seven million people inoculated with the vaccine in the United States.

Planning for the rollout of vaccines in Ireland included an expectation that Ireland would get 600,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson jab by the end of June.

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) is to consider the EMA announcement on the vaccine before making a recommendation on what should be done here.

Sources said Mr Varadkar told the Fine Gael colleagues that the Government’s target for vaccinating 82 per cent of adults can still be met.

The meeting heard that two issues could prevent the target being reached - a lack of supply or people not taking the vaccine as case numbers drop with more people being inoculated.

Mr Varadkar is understood to have told the meeting that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be required to meet the target.

He said that at least 80 per cent of the population needs to be vaccinated before next winter.

Mr Varadkar is also said to have expressed caution on reopening plans amid concern that Covid-19 cases may rise in the coming days.

The meeting was told that GPs have reported increased presentations earlier this week and while it’s not a fourth wave of the virus, care needs to be taken.

Health appointment

Senator Jerry Buttimer raised concern about the "optics" surrounding the Government's appointment of former Department of Public Expenditure secretary general Robert Watt as the secretary general of the Department of Health.  The issue has generated controversy as the salary for the role was increased to €292,000 though Mr Watt says he will waive the portion above his existing pay of €211,000 until the economy begins to improve.

Mr Varadkar is understood to have told the meeting that Mr Watt came through an international competition carried out by the Top Level Appointments Committee (TLAC) and that he hopes Mr Watt waiving a portion of the salary will take the sting out of the issue.

On Sinn Féin's social media and voter database operations, Mr Varadkar highlighted the "transnational" nature of the operations in the wake of Irish Independent reports that some Sinn Féin Facebook accounts were run by people in Serbia and Germany. He also said that canvassing someone on their doorstep as a TD, councillor or election candidate is not consent to then give that information to a centralised database. He Praised Fine Gael Senator John Cummins for highlighting the issue.

Senior Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin this week denied the party is “data mining” from Facebook and other social media sites to enhance its voter database.He also said Sinn Féin did not add information collected locally to the database.

He said Sinn Féin had replied to questions from the Data Protection Commissioner and will “take on board” any suggestions from the commissioner about its management of the database.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times