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Political winter sets in amid uncertainty over new Covid variant

Inside Politics: Nphet meets today to consider new restrictions amid continuing high numbers

Yesterday was the first day of meteorological winter, weather forecaster Joanna Donnelly informed us on RTÉ.

It also felt very winterish politically yesterday with discontent being spread just about everywhere: on Joe Duffy, callers complained about the masks for primary school children; there was criticism too of the steep reductions that kicked in yesterday on the employee wage supplement scheme (EWSS); and there was a sense of foreboding that more restrictions will come after the National Public Health Emergency Team meets today.

Oh yes, the first case of Omicron was confirmed in Ireland yesterday.

And did we mention mica?


The atmosphere is more than a little fraught at the moment, and there is uncertainty about where we stand with the new variant. We know it’s highly transmissible, but is it mild and relatively benign or are there more serious symptoms that are yet unknown?

There is uncertainty too over what’s going to happen. Nphet meets today amid continuing high numbers. But, that said, there are signs of positivity. The case numbers are high but seem to have stabilised, and the seven-day rate is down, as is the reproduction number, which has been reduced to 1 from 1.2.

Our main story reflects that sense. It's calm now but only because a storm is looming over the horizon.

On the Nphet discussions it says: “It is not expected that harsh lockdown-style measures will form a part of discussions, however, with emphasis instead on curbing socialising and reducing crowding in hospitality settings.

“Such an approach could see capacity limits for indoor hospitality settings advised, restrictions on booking sizes and reduced opening hours, or enhanced use of the Covid cert. Advice on household visits is also likely to be considered.”

Meanwhile, Cormac McQuinn and Jack Horgan-Jones were picking up intel from the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parliamentary party meetings. They give a good indication of mood and disposition.

At the Fianna Fáil meeting, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told his colleagues that the current wave of Covid-19 has stabilised.

But, there was a ‘but’.

And this was it: “He cautioned there are high numbers of Delta cases and the trend can flip in the wrong direction very quickly so he remains concerned.”

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told him it will take two weeks to fully assess the impact of the Omicron variant on transmissibility, severity and vaccine efficacy.

Over at Fine Gael, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he was not convinced new Covid-19 restrictions are needed.

As Horgan-Jones reports: “Mr Varadkar is understood to have told the group that recent data on the disease suggests Ireland is tracking the more optimistic side of modelling projections drawn up last month, and he is sceptical that new restrictions are necessary.”

A motion to restore the full rate of EWSS for the hospitality sector was passed at the Fianna Fáil meeting. There were comforting sounds from the Taoiseach - “never found wanting” etc - but no definite commitment. At Fine Gael, Paschal Donohoe was not quite so circumspect and ruled out any increases.

As it happens a C&AG report on how EWSS payments were handled is due to be examined at the Public Accounts Committee today, suggesting “trouble at mill” over its administration.

Overall, it is a bit of a holding pattern at the moment. We might have another week of ‘wait and see’ before we find out if we have a meaningful Christmas, or a slightly more meaningless one.

Mica homeowners want to see off the sliding scale

The expression “draw a line under it” is common in the political sphere. Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien was hopeful he had just done that with the €2.2 billion scheme to repair and remediate houses destroyed by blocks containing mica.

It was not to be. The campaign groups have not bought it. Neither has the Opposition. And the support of Government TDs is not assured either.

There was plenty of fury in the Dáil about it yesterday and continuing anger from affected homeowners.

What they have a problem with is the sliding scale. The rate per square foot falls after each 1,000 square metres. It has led to claims that householders will have to bear €60,000 of the cost for a 2,400-sq-ft house because the pro rata rate is insufficient.

We report Darragh O'Brien is under pressure to drop the sliding scale for the rebuilding of mica-damaged homes.

Interestingly, the off-lead has construction industry sources saying what's offered in the sliding scale is sufficient to build an average-sized house in Donegal.

“However, they also suggested that the cost of replacing larger homes would not be fully covered under the indicative rates currently set out in the Government’s Defective Concrete Block Scheme.”

The Mica Action Group has warned of renewed protests in Dublin if the sliding scale is not dropped before Christmas.

And two Fine Gael TDs - Donegal’s Joe McHugh and Joe Carey from Clare - have questioned the basis of the sliding scale. McHugh has said it makes “absolutely no sense”.

You can be sure that if nothing changes, the Opposition will move might and main to force a vote on this issue.

Best reads

Miriam Lord reflects on a day when the Dáil's decibels were provided by Alan Kelly and by Pearse Doherty.

Pat Leahy assesses the impact a "botched" mica-redress scheme and the latest Covid twists and turns has had on the Coalition.

Pat Leahy also reports on a claim by Michael McDowell that the Ceann Comhairle warned TDs not to offend China by engaging with Taiwan.

Sarah Burns reports the Coalition has backed the Clean Air Bill.

Northern Editor Freya McClements reports the EU has called on the UK to reciprocate the concessions that the commission has made to find a solution to the Northern Protocol. On its previous record, don't expect a response too soon.


Away from the Dáil, Taoiseach Michéal Martin TD and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe TD will unveil the latest progress report on the North East Inner City Implementation Group this morning.

After a late night when voting did not end until 12.30am, the Dáil has an early start this morning with a 8.25am kick off.

It’s to ensure that the Health (Amendment No 3) Bill 2001 passes all stages today. This is an emergency power that amends the Health Act 1947 to allow mandatory hotel quarantine on a temporary basis. It’s the first concrete step taken to address the new Omicron variant of Covid-19.

Leaders' Questions will be at noon.

In the Seanad, there will be statements on the current situation on Covid-19.

It’s a busy Thursday for committees. Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien is before the housing committee discussing supplementary estimates for his department.

The Public Accounts Committee is examining two interesting issues: controls over the temporary wage subsidy scheme, and Revenue’s management of suspicious transaction reports. For the former, a previous examination by the Comptroller and Auditor General concluded a small but significant number of those who received the PUP were not entitled to it.

The sub-committee on disability is continuing its discussion on Ireland aligning with the United Nations Charter of Rights for People with Disability. This is long overdue.

The education committee is discussing supplementary estimates for the Department with Minister for Education Norma Foley.

The finance committee is examining the supplementary estimates for the Chief State Solicitor’s office with Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers.

The joint committee on the Good Friday Agreement is engaging with Justice for the Forgotten and the Pat Finucane Centre.