Miriam Lord: Opposition casts Government as Duds’ Army after new Covid battle plan

Captain Micheál Mainwaring’s new motto is ‘hold firm and stick to the basics’

Hold firm and stick to the basics.

That’s our Covid War version of “Keep calm and carry on”.

It's such a pity they didn't play the theme tune from Dad's Army as Taoiseach Micheál Mainwaring marched on to the platform with officers Pike Varadkar, Godfrey Ryan and Corporal Stephen Donnelly.

"Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Covid, if you think we're on the run? We are the boys who will stop your little game. We are the boys who will make you think again."

As the Taoiseach unleashed his snappy new motto urging a beleaguered citizenry to fight the good fight, protect our borders from foreign invaders and crush the enemy virus, he was flanked by his top men.

Prissy, by-the-book, accident-prone platoon leader Mainwaring sighs “You stupid boy” under his breath each time young Tánaiste Pike, imagining himself to be a movie star, goes on another impetuous solo run. Nature-loving minister Godfrey sometimes falls asleep, and his sister Dolly makes the most exquisite cucumber sandwiches. And then the well-meaning but hapless Corporal Donnelly, who knows all about everything until he suddenly starts running about the Cabinet table shouting “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”

Top men.

One key member was missing, though. Posh, privately educated Sgt Wilson Coveney was on duty in New York, addressing the UN Security Council on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.

Back home, the “Hold firm and stick to the basics” motto was uttered during the latest in a long line of lockdown exercises. When it comes to doom-laden Covid briefings, the Government has had more variants than the virus – nearly a dozen since last March – and everyone is so sick of them now that this time around there wasn’t even an attempt at reciting a line of motivational poetry.

Micheál and his boys went out on lockdown drill after the Cabinet had spent most of the morning and into the afternoon deliberating on how severe the latest round of Level 5 restrictions should be. Opposition parties wanted them to impose a zero -Covid strategy (Solidarity/PBP and the Soc Dems) or close to it (Labour and Sinn Féin).

As reports from within the camp began to seep out, it seemed not all of the platoon were happy with the battle plan being drawn up by the leaders. Some felt it did not go far enough, particularly in the area of quarantine rules and sealing borders. Other aspects of the crisis were discussed, including the reopening of schools and public health best practice.

Masks in banks

This prompted a press release from Labour’s Ged Nash proving how something that would have sounded bonkers last year is mundanely believable now.

“Nash welcomes Donnelly’s U-turn on the wearing of masks in banks.”

But before the big afternoon briefing was a big day in the Seanad. One of the happier consequences of the pandemic is that Senators now get to strut their stuff, albeit in cruelly reduced numbers, in the Dáil chamber. They had the political field to themselves, too, because the Lower House wasn’t in session and stealing their thunder.

Covid was very much on the menu, but there was disappointment when they learned that Minister for Health Corporal Donnelly would not be able to address them on the issue as had been envisaged. Don't panic! Minister of State in the department, Anne Rabbitte, scuttled in and read his speech at them instead.

Earlier in the day, during the order of business, there was more talk of Covid and the way we might look at it. Fianna Fáil's Seanad leader, former TD Lisa Chambers, offered an interesting observation about the Mayo testing facility in MacHale Park.

"Unfortunately, some people travelling to that testing facility who have suspected Covid-19 are actually stopping off on their way to or from the testing facility to do their shopping in Tesco and Dunnes in Castlebar. Quite remarkable. I have anecdotal evidence that people have shopping bags in the back seat of their vehicle."

Chambers appealed to people around the country not to stop off in public places if they have been referred for a test.

House leader Regina Doherty said such carry-on was hard to believe and people needed to be reminded what they had to do to contain the situation.

“I think we need to have a serious conversation about bubbles,” she declared in a suggestion not usually heard in the Upper House. “I read a story over the weekend of a lady who spoke about her bubble and she seemed to have about 18 people in it.”

She must have been disappointed when bubbles never surfaced during the Government briefing. And unlike in the Seanad, Mainwaring and his boys didn't go out of their way to wish her a happy birthday either. Neither did they mention that Tuesday marked the 10th anniversary of Micheál's election as leader of Fianna Fáil.

Bet he never expected to reach that milestone in the middle of a pandemic.

Still. He had to soldier on. The policing of the Covid regulations would be "increased significantly", he said, before having a little Wolfe Tones moment. "The road we are on is hard … but it is the road we must go down together." Sinn Féin would have approved, given that the party is now tiresomely reprising its response to the shock Brexit result in 2016 – calls for a Border poll – by taking every opportunity to link efforts to fight the pandemic with a united Ireland.

Calm corporal

Corporal Donnelly remained commendably calm on the platform as his senior officers promised a crackdown on some forms of travel and mandatory quarantining for certain classes of traveller whenever they could get all their ducks in a row. But it was all a bit vague.

“It is going to take a few weeks to operationalise,” said young Tánaiste Pike, before setting out some of the things that would have to be done before their big promises would be, eh, operational.

We have to “double down” and “knuckle down” urged the Taoiseach, giving no guarantees about when a “reopening” might happen. Maybe by summer, ventured a doubtful-sounding Tánaiste, unsuccessfully trying to inject a modicum of optimism.

As for the Border with the North and travel between the UK and Ireland, steps would be taken and things would be done after some “fleshing out” and discussions and legislation and stuff.

It’s a challenge to seal a seamless border, explained Micheál. People are going to and fro and over and back and there is a lot of movement and interaction between two jurisdictions and there have to be talks about a two-island strategy.

“We just have to make sure that it’s right by the time we consider its implementation.”

As for Zero Covid, wondered Tánaiste Pike, when do you unseal everything? “Would you take a risk around Christmas? I don’t think you would.”

Christmas? Christmas? We’re just over the Christmas and you mention the next one? You stupid boy.

The Opposition was wholly unimpressed, adopting a stance most usually seen after a government delivers a budget.

A missed opportunity, they said. Too little too late.

"Ad hoc, piece-meal, half-baked measures, inadequate and futile," said Richard Boyd Barrett.

“Hold firm and stick to the basics,” said the Taoiseach.

Don’t panic! It’s the only way we’ll win this war.