Miriam Lord: Government regains composure after Nphet shock

Taoiseach robustly defends decision to delay reopening following ‘stark’ warning

Calmer heads all round in the Dáil on Wednesday, except for the usual suspects from the Roaring Independents Group.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was late to the party, having skipped Leaders' Questions the previous day with the Taoiseach absent on United Nations speechifying duty.

Eoin Ó Broin togged out instead to mark Government substitute Eamon Ryan. He used the time to talk about a plan for affordable housing in the Ringsend-Irishtown section of Dublin Bay South, where, coincidentally, a byelection is in full swing.

The issue he raised is an important one and should not be overlooked, but the biggest Opposition party missed an open goal by not focusing on the Government’s atrocious handling of its 11th-hour decision to delay indoor dining until a pass system restricting entry to fully vaccinated people is developed.

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Labour leader Alan Kelly, followed by Tipperary Independent Mattie McGrath steaming down the right wing, had the field to themselves and made the most of the Government's discomfort.

The pub and restaurant industry went into immediate meltdown, there were reports of infighting among Ministers before the decision was announced, the rest of the Opposition screamed blue murder about discrimination and lack of planning, while a confused public wondered what the Government was playing at.

Grim forecast

On Tuesday, the Government looked shook, reeling from the grim forecast Nphet suddenly landed on the Cabinet with its predictions that the Delta virus could cause massive damage if restrictions are lifted now. Coherent explanations were in short supply.

Critics, within and without the Dáil, made mincemeat of its unsteady, confused response to a shocking development.

Twenty-four hours later and it was a different story.

When Leaders’ Questions began at midday, the leading actors were back in place. Mary Lou McDonald, perhaps trying to make up for lost ground, got stuck into Micheál Martin.

She never ceases to be surprised by the inadequacies of his Government, which managed this time to scale “a new peak” of chaos.

By his “divisive” delaying of indoor dining the Taoiseach “marched the hospitality sector to the top of the hill, only to march them back down again” while hatching a plan which gives no consideration to young people, apart from sending them the message that they are less deserving than those who are older than them.

Had he not known weeks ago about the Delta variant threat? What about antigen testing? Where is the clarity on vaccines? Why was he consulting the hospitality industry only now?

“This is truly a mess.”

But the Taoiseach, in line with his Government’s more lucid approach on Wednesday, had one compelling line of argument which is difficult to dismiss. It got a bit lost in the ructions of the previous day.

What would Mary Lou have done in light of the stark, sober warnings from Nphet? “Is it your view that we should have pressed ahead?” he asked her. “I’d like you to answer that question openly and honestly, because that’s a key point.”

The nearest he got was that “the sector should be reopened, and safely”.

‘Stark’ scenario

Micheál Martin robustly defended the decision to delay and his "significant shock" at the "stark" scenario suddenly presented to his Government came across his replies. He threw in a phone call he had with Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, (the figures are soaring there despite high vaccination levels) who told him the Delta virus will "rip through an unvaccinated population".

His Government’s initial flustered reaction to the shock U-turn on reopening was replaced with one strong response: what choice had they, when faced with such dire warnings about the possible impact of the Delta strain?

“Nobody likes the message” he told her in exasperation. “I don’t like the message!”

Then he asked Róisín Shortall of the Soc Dems, who had questions about how he plans to proceed, if she agreed the Government was right to pause the reopening in light of the sobering figures they were shown on Monday.

She didn’t disagree.

There was no point in him even trying to argue with leader of the Roaring Independents Group Mattie McGrath and his clamourous assistant, Danny Healy-Rae, who cannot be convinced that the continuing closure of small rural hostelries and the cancellation of First Holy Communions is not part of some sinister worldwide plot to make country pubs extinct and bankrupt bouncy-castle owners.

Danny berated the Government for listening to “so-called scientists, professors, advisers and geniuses” and yet “we have no one with common sense”.

What is so different about Ireland’s small pubs and restaurants “in the 26 counties” compared with similar establishments in Northern Ireland and all around the world?

In his view, the Government doesn’t want to see them opened at all.

"George Lee says it could be October before a decision will be made."

Worrying stuff from Danny, as RTÉ’s George is such an upbeat, optimistic soul.

“Before very long, Taoiseach, all of the country will be landed outside the gates of Leinster House and this great centre here. They have been totally and absolutely blackguarded. Who do you think you’re codding?”

Micheál could scarcely hide his frustration.

“I-I-I get amazed at times. . . I recall being here in February and everyone was saying ‘maximum suppression of the virus’. . . It just amazes me how, in a short few months, people forget what happened in this country. Never underestimate the potential of this virus to wreak havoc,” he sighed, shaking his head as, above on his balcony perch, Danny was losing his.

‘Apartheid decision’

Mattie McGrath wondered if the Taoiseach has “any bit of shame at all or self-respect?” after his “illogical, alarming, Dickensian and apartheid decision” to leave unvaccinated people outside premises.

“You’re operating to an agenda that’s clear for anyone to see now. It’s not an agenda for the Irish people, it’s an agenda for someone else,” he said darkly. “If Nphet said jump to the sky, you’d jump.”

The Taoiseach rose wearily to his feet.

“Deputy, my only concern is to protect people. It’s my only concern, my only motivation. I don’t want to close anything down. Why would I?” he asked, his Cork accent kicking in. “Why would anybody want to close anything down. I think the reason is obvious – the pandemic.”

Mattie shouted that the figures don’t add up. “Only 48 people in hospital – who are you codding!”

Micheál was getting annoyed now. If he had taken deputy McGrath’s advice at the outset, he said, many more people would have died, because “nothing ever added up for you during this pandemic”.

As the Tipperary TD kept up his unintelligible interruptions from the other side of the auditorium, mild-mannered Micheál took him to task.

“You’ve been in denial since the beginning of the pandemic. Your approach is the Bolsanaro approach, it’s the Trump approach: denial, denial, denial about the existence of the pandemic. That’s your approach.”

Later in the day, the Taoiseach and Ministers met representatives of the hospitality industry and laid out the sobering forecast they heard which had prompted them to act. It was not an acrimonious meeting, by all accounts. Meanwhile, the Chief Medical Officer, Tony Holohan, met Opposition TDs to explain the situation and why it was deemed necessary to act.

Once again, the reaction was muted.

Because after all the upheaval of the previous day, and the valid questions which still remain over the Government’s lack of contingency plan and reluctance to question any Nphet recommendations, the Taoiseach’s fallback line could not be lightly disputed:

What would you do, if faced with the same doomsday forecast?