Martin defends Government’s response to Covid-19 in Dáil

Shortall describes Coalition actions as ‘haphazard and somewhat chaotic’

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has defended the Government’s Covid-19 response and said the vaccination programme had been “anything but chaotic and haphazard”, with the total expenditure for testing and tracing to date at €846 million.

Mr Martin said 8.1 million vaccines had been administered to date including 800,000 booster shots. He said 220,000-240,000 booster shots would be given this week and 212,000 free Covid tests were completed over the past week, the highest level of lab tests completed in a seven-day period to date.

Mr Martin said 8,000 free antigen tests were despatched to schools on Monday.

The Taoiseach was speaking in the Dáil on Tuesday, after Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall said the State’s response to the latest Covid wave “lacks urgency, cohesion and rationality”.

"This is particularly evident in the approach to antigen testing. It's more like Lanigan's Ball, 'in again, out again', than fact based and deliberative," she said.

“As we now know, your Government led pharmacists and retailers on a merry dance to agree a subsidy for the tests before abruptly walking off the dance floor.”

Ms Shortall said Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly had indicated in a radio interview on Monday that a State subsidy for antigen testing was no longer being contemplated, "apparently because the market will provide".

“There are a number of glaring problems with the State’s hands-off approach to the provision of antigen tests,” she added.

The Dublin North West TD said antigen tests priced at €3-€4 when taken twice a week as per advice, were "simply out of reach for many low and middle income workers who are already struggling".

“Your Minister’s glib advice that people should simply shop around for the best price, Taoiseach, is beneath contempt,” she added.

Ms Shortall said the European Commission had rejected 160 separate applications from various producers of antigen testing while six tests were "removed altogether from the list during that time".

Mr Martin said the price range of antigen tests had come “way down” and that public health authorities had not been as enthusiastic as Ms Shortall when it came to antigen testing.

“I think where we are now is a very significant advance on where we have been previously during the pandemic,” he added.

Emergency legislation

The Government will introduce two pieces of emergency legislation to the Oireachtas this week to deal with the latest surge in Covid-19 with case numbers and hospitalisations remaining high.

A Bill to reintroduce mandatory hotel quarantine will be brought to the Dáil on Thursday. The Government has told Opposition parties it expects the Bill to pass all stages.

On Friday, the Health and Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill will come before the Dáil. This Bill will extend the Covid emergency powers where the Minister for Health is allowed to make regulations without recourse to parliament.

Most Opposition parties will not oppose this Bill but will seek amendments. However, Sinn Féin on Tuesday said it would oppose the Bill, as it has opposed earlier extensions.

“We have reservations about that Bill, particularly in relation to the competence of Minister [for Health] Stephen Donnelly,” said the party’s health spokesman, David Cullinane.

“We are not in the mood to give this Minister for Health any blank cheques in relation to introducing regulations where there is no accountability or oversight or debate.”

He accused Mr Donnelly of making “a dog’s dinner” out of many regulations, and called for free antigen tests to be made available.

Covid cases

A further 5,471 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the Republic on Tuesday. As of 8am on Tuesday, there were 579 people in hospital with the virus, with 122 of those in intensive care.

In Northern Ireland, there were a further two deaths of patients with Covid-19, and another 1,585 cases of the virus.

The figures came as the Northern Ireland director of the Royal College of Surgeons, Mark Taylor, told a Stormont committee that the health service was facing “pressures never seen before on these shores”.

The “difficulties of trying to sustain services has led to a moral distress in our ranks”, he said.

These pressures were not only the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic “and the brutalising effect that it has had on our staff and society as a whole” but also the knock-on effect which meant the health service had been as busy as winter during the summer, he told the health committee.

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times

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