Taoiseach Micheál Martin has called on the Opposition to clearly state whether or not they want indoor hospitality to reopen during bitter exchanges over the Government’s controversial legislation for the sector.
Mr Martin said the “fundamental objective” of new Government legislation was “to facilitate indoor dining and hospitality in a safe way in line with public health advice”. He said it was the duty of the Oireachtas to “protect the unvaccinated”.
At Cabinet, Ministers were updated on the progress of the vaccination programme and told that all eligible people aged over 16 would have a vaccine by the end of September. Officials are examining the question of vaccinating 12-15 year olds in the autumn and also the question of a booster vaccination programme, ministers were told.
As he faced trenchant Opposition criticism and claims of confusion and inconsistencies in the hospitality reopening plan, the Taoiseach said “we can decide not to open indoor hospitality at all”.
He said that “if that’s what people want us to do, please articulate it”.
The Bill, to be rushed through the Dáil and Seanad this week, will allow those who are fully vaccinated, those who have recovered from Covid-19 and under-18s who are with their parents, to dine indoors.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the new regime should include everyone and not exclude some. She said it was another “last-minute scramble” and the legislation was discriminatory and unenforceable.
But Mr Martin accused her of being politically opportunistic and told her it was time to “get off the fence”.
The Taoiseach told the Dáil “we want to consolidate the vaccine programme and challenge the virus. We don’t want to underestimate the Delta variant.”
He said Nphet (National Public Health Emergency Team) was of the view that “if we restrict indoor dining in a verifiable and enforceable approach to the vaccinated and to those who’ve recovered, that’s a safe way of doing it”.
He also appealed for “personal responsibility to adhere to the law, to adhere to the basic principle that ‘if I am vaccinated, if I have recovered from Covid, I can go indoors’.”
This was very important to facilitate this latest phase of the reopening of society, he said.
He made the appeal as Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly predicted there would be 1,600 cases of Covid infection a day in a short time because of the high transmissibility of the Delta variant.
Mr Donnelly told the Dáil that at that stage track-and-trace procedures would be largely irrelevant because the virus would be at large within the community.
Labour leader Alan Kelly said the Government had announced another plan “without consultation” over the role of GPs in providing certificates to vaccinated patients.
He said it was difficult for the Opposition to work with Government when the “Ministers in your own Government don’t know what they’re talking about or are inconsistent in the first place”.
Challenged by People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy about whether Nphet agreed with the Government’s move to allow children under 18 to accompany their parents, Mr Martin admitted that the public health advice “did not reference children, I take that point. But children will be part of their family bubble in terms of dining” indoors.
The Taoiseach added “this is about balance. There are risks involved. It will require vigilance, it will require adherence on the part of all of us.”
During the debate, Independent TD Mattie McGrath was sharply criticised for comparing the Government to Nazi Germany, in reaction to the plan which will require people to show proof of vaccination.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin told him he should “refrain from your frequent use of Naziism and totalitarianism”.
“You have consistently made ridiculous remarks that are an insult and offensive. You’ve accused Government of being like Nazis and done so repeatedly,” Mr Martin said.
Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore highlighted the tweet from the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum that an argument on vaccination using the tragedy of all the people who had “suffered, were humiliated, tortured and murdered by the hateful totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany” was a symbol of “moral and intellectual decline”.