Nation moves to Level 3 as Cabinet rejects NPHET advice and keeps economy open

Taoiseach says aim is to balance demands of public health with need to protect livelihoods

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said there would be a special focus on enforcing the existing rules rather than moving to a higher level of restrictions. Video: RTE

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The Government last night announced a tightening of restrictions and a new campaign of enforcement, but declined to follow the advice of public health experts despite warnings that infections would surge if the country was not placed in an immediate lockdown.

In a significant break with its advisers on the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and after a series of tense meetings between ministers and officials throughout the day, the Cabinet decided to move the entire country to level three restrictions from midnight on Tuesday  for the next three weeks, rather than the Level 5 requested by chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan.

In an extraordinary attack last night, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar criticised Dr Holohan and NPHET for springing the surprise of the Level 5 recommendation on Government without notice or consultation on Sunday and also for not thinking its lock-down recommendation through.

Speaking on the Claire Byrne Show on RTÉ, he said “what happened on Sunday night came out of the blue”.

He said the rationale of NPHET that hospitals would be overwhelmed was “not shared by the CEO of the HSE (Paul Reid) and the HSE were not consulted on this”.

It was a bad day for NPHET, a bad day for Government and also for the Irish people, he said, and the 400,000 people who for 24 hours had worried about having a job. He also said while members of NPHET were very well qualified none were in receipt of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment or otherwise affected by the economic impact of the measures.

Last night, in an address to the country from Government Buildings, Taoiseach Micheál Martin sought to balance the demands of public health with the need to “protect lives and livelihoods” warned that a return to lockdown “would lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs”.

‘Very different situation’

The country was in “a very different situation to last March”, he said, and warned that “severe restrictions now would have a very damaging impact” on the economy.

Mr Martin’s statement represented a sharp rejection of the advice from Dr Holohan and the public health team, following a day which saw fierce criticism throughout Government of the chief medical officer, who returned from leave on Sunday and immediately hardened the NPHET position.

Dr Holohan warned the Government that there could be 2,300 cases per day in a month’s time if current trends continue. There are 31 open outbreaks in nursing homes, and 25 in settings catering for vulnerable groups such as Travellers, the homeless and direct provision recipients, the chief medical officer told Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly in a letter seen by The Irish Times.

He said current measures “are not sufficiently controlling the disease”, and that it is “vital that we do everything in our power now to arrest the current trajectory nationally”.

The Irish Times understands that in its own deliberations, NPHET officials dismissed Level 3 for the entire country because they believed that while it might slow the growth of infections, it would not be sufficient to stop it. The return of Dr Holohan after three months of family leave brought a “fresh pair of eyes” to NPHET’s considerations that may have challenged an “optimism bias” around the deteriorating data that lower levels might prove effective, said a source.

At a press conference in Government Buildings last night, Mr Donnelly said the Government had to balance public health advice against the impact on businesses and on people. Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said the implementation of such a significant change in public health guidance would mean that not only would hundreds of thousands of jobs be lost, but many of them would not return.

Mr Donnelly said that the move to level three was “a very significant thing to do” and that there were early signs that the restrictions in Dublin were beginning to stabilise the growth of the virus.

He said additional funding would be provided to gardaí to increase levels of enforcement. Asked if he would take responsibility if last night’s decision turned out to be wrong, Mr Donnelly said it was “not a question of who is right and who is wrong”.

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