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Once more into the Covid breach as Coalition left with no easy choices

Insided Politics: ‘Grim’ the watchword in Government yesterday as Reid outlined risks

Good morning.

Once more into the Covid breach, it seems. The Cabinet’s Covid-19 subcommittee met late into the night on Monday amid growing concerns over the sprawling impact of Covid, winter ailments and capacity issues on the healthcare system.

The hospitals are running red hot, and concerns are sky high. The Health Service Executive (HSE) and medics have not been behind the door about making this point, with a full-court media press across last weekend followed up with several broadcast interviews on Monday.

And in case the politicians missed that, HSE chief executive Paul Reid told the subcommittee last night that the health service is at greater risk than at any time in the course of the pandemic. No wonder the watchword in Government yesterday was ‘grim’.


Given the Government has resorted to lockdowns every time the healthcare system has been threatened like this, it’s a unique point of difficulty for the Coalition, which seems set to lean heavily on its established strategies rather than reach for another lockdown.

So, it looks like there’ll be wider use of the vaccine cert, more boosters, expanded mask mandates and perhaps more antigen testing (although there were some indications late last night that plans for this may not materialise this week after all – so watch this space).

The advice on working from home is set to switch back, too, in the first sign that previously announced relaxations are, after all, up for reversal. Expect another dollop of personal responsibility to be spooned on top of that mixture.

There are some important points of differentiation. For one, despite the volume of concern coming from the health service, there’s no actual public health advice from chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and his team to reverse engines.

The vaccine campaign has changed the dynamic, and there are indications that boosters will now be given to many hundreds of thousands more people, which could yet pour oil on troubled waters.

There are concerns in Government, too, that the healthcare cost of shutting down and the endemic nature of Covid, mixed with the impact of vaccines, has changed the nature and usefulness of lockdowns as a tool to battle the virus.

That said, the new modelling presented on Monday night is troubling, showing a later, higher peak to the current wave, which may not arrive until into December.

This in turn brings the peaks in hospitalisations and intensive care referrals uncomfortably close to Christmas – hundreds of people may be in critical care as December 25th approaches. This will raise questions over just what balance can and should be struck between the economy, socialising and family mixing over the festive period.

The nerviness across the Coalition was clear yesterday – and so it should be. What’s at stake is not just lockdown – there’s a wider political question here.

If the strategy fails, and restrictions are re-introduced, the Government would be faced with having to renege on the unwritten deal it struck with voters across 2021 – that progress would be slow and incremental, but whatever opened, stayed open.

On the contrary, if it doesn’t reintroduce curbs and the healthcare system then buckles, the political cost would be higher still. No good options – or at least, no easy ones.

Front page

Covid is our lead again this morning – you can read our coverage of last night's meeting here.

Elsewhere on the front, Joe Brennan has the details of eye-watering profits in the motor insurance industry, with reduced motoring during Covid resulting in fewer accidents and fewer payoffs. Profits are now touching €307 million, all told, across the sector.

Meanwhile, Conor Gallagher has details of an alleged sexual assault at an army barracks last weekend.

Best reads

Health Editor Paul Cullen reads the runes and tries to make sense of just what is behind this latest Covid surge here.

Harry McGee has done a deep dive into Sinn Féin's climate policy.

Derek Scally's Berlin Letter details how Germany's fourth wave of Covid is compounded by a political crisis.

"When my sputum has breasted the tape, I discard the funnel" – words to jumpstart your Tuesday with. Fintan O'Toole on antigen tests is here.


Cabinet meets at 9am in Dublin Castle – the agenda will likely be Covid-heavy, with decisions due on measures agreed last night.

There should be an update on boosters too, as it looks like the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) has cleared the way for an expanded programme.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman will seek Cabinet approval for a payment scheme for mother and baby home survivors, which is projected to cost in the region of €800 million – benefiting thousands of people impacted.

A lump sum payment and a medical card are envisaged, but it’s not known if there will be ongoing payments to survivors. Access to birth records and projects to memorialise those affected will also be covered in an “action plan” to be launched after Cabinet.

Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil is at 2pm, with Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, PBP-Solidarity and the Regional Group, before Taoiseach’s Questions shortly after 3pm.

At 4.45pm, the Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill gets a second stage hearing, followed by Sinn Féin Private Members' business on the National Ambulance Service (NAS). David Cullinane will be seeking a capacity review of the NAS to be expedited and for action to be taken on staff welfare issues he has encountered meeting members of the service around the country.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath is taking oral questions at 8.40pm, before topical issues at 10.10pm.

In the Seanad, commencement matters are at 2.30pm, followed by the report and final stages of the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Bill 2021 at 5pm. At 6.45pm, the committee stage of the Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill 2021 is slated. This legislation kills off the Strategic Housing Development planning process, which was a flagship scheme of the last Government.

On the committee from, representatives from the Mental Health Commission will give evidence as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill. That’s at 11am in front of the sub-committee on mental health. At the same time, the education committee is hearing from a range of experts on a broad swathe of matters relating to the third-level sector.

In the afternoon, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe will take part in the finance committee’s consideration of the Finance Bill. That’s at 1pm. Starting at 3pm, the defence committee will engage with veterans associations on issues facing their members. At the same time, the committee on integration will hear from representative groups on the experiences of migrant communities engaging with State bodies and the healthcare system.

The day is rounded out by Minister for Environment Eamon Ryan’s appearance at the environment committee, where he will discuss carbon budgets and the climate action plan. It’s happening at 4.30pm.