Minister for Education Norma Foley has told the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party that the rationale for changing the vaccine priority list must be explained.
In comments made at the weekly meeting of TDs and Senators, Ms Foley said "it is important and helpful" that the National Immunisation Advisory Council (Niac) "explain their rationale for this move".
The change, which shifted to an age-based allocation rather than one based on age and profession, has sparked a backlash from teachers and other unions.
Ms Foley told colleagues that she believed it is a significant change and paid tribute to the work of special needs assistants and teachers during the pandemic.
Separately, John Lahart, the Dublin South-West TD, told the meeting that there should be a “conversation” if the party does not see a polling bounce from the rollout of the vaccine when it ramps up, or the relaxation of restrictions. Colleagues saw the intervention as a “shot fired – but a small shot”, adding that Mr Lahart “only articulated what many [were] thinking”. Others said it was “the first public articulation of a view within the party that Government must deliver on the vaccine programme”, and as meaning “Government and maybe more particularly Micheál Martin has put a big bet on meeting his targets”.
The meeting also heard from Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, who said that the 65-69-year-olds should be vaccinated in April and May; however, the meeting was told that 860,000 vaccines were now expected in April – previously Mr Donnelly had said 1 million doses were expected next month.
Prior to the meeting a leading Fianna Fáil backbencher characterised changes to the prioritisation list as a decision to “pull the rug” from under some workers.
Former minister for agriculture Barry Cowen said he understood the decision, that it was based on “science and reasoning”. But he argued that a group of workers would feel deflated having been assured their place would be higher due to infection risk associated with their employment.
"Now suddenly to pull the rug from under them is far from ideal and most disheartening and disturbing for those cohorts," said Mr Cowen prior to Wednesday evening's meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party.
He said that from early on in the pandemic it was known that coronavirus had a more severe impact on older and vulnerable people. “But Niac and Government persisted in promising and assuring key workers their place would be higher because of the risk of infection associated with their employment.”
He said the decision “undoubtedly increases the pressure and absolute need to adhere now to vaccination rollout promises/targets/commitments”. Referring to the Government’s ambition to have 80 per cent of the adult population receive one shot by the end of June, he said that required administering 250,000 doses per week from here on.
“It means having GPs, pharmacists and all vaccinator personnel and centres at full tilt from here on ensuring that 250,000 a week is met. Failure to live up to those commitments would be a further blow to those impacted by this change of direction announced by Niac/Government in vaccination strategy.”
Mr Cowen was among several TDs to raise the issue at the meeting, including Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown's Cormac Devlin. Mr Cowen said that special needs assistants should be considered under Cohort 9, those in crowded workplaces. He told the meeting that he accepted reluctantly the change, but called for a timeline for the vaccination programme to be published. And he said there were questions about the role of pharmacists that had to be addressed.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin defended the decision, saying older teachers and special needs assistants will get the vaccine sooner under the new system which he said will allow for a faster rollout.
Mr Martin told the meeting that a further easing of restrictions in March or April risked a surge in cases which could put the summer at risk. And he said the Government was following public health advice and trying to "strike the right balance".
Mr Martin also told the parliamentary party that opening up too early could “wreck” the summer and that there was a need to contain the virus while ramping up the vaccines programme. He said supply of vaccines had “hardened up” which would allow for expansion of the rollout. He told the meeting that if the state was “too liberal” in opening up in March and April “we risk paying for it in the summer dealing with it”.
Dara Calleary, the former minister for agriculture, and Mr Devlin said the outdoor furniture scheme for the hospitality sector, announced by Minister for Culture Catherine Martin, should be extended to wet pubs. Mr Calleary said the industry “is on its knees and they need support”.
The Mayo TD also asked the Taoiseach to engage directly with gardaí and teachers “to reassure them on the vaccine rollout” following the reprioritisation.
Minister of State for Trade Promotion Robert Troy said that the Department of Enterprise is considering supports for tradespeople – the “man or woman in the van” – who are missing out on supports as they are not ratable businesses. His department is seeking to amend or introduce a scheme to help such businesses with fixed overheads, which will take a number of weeks.
Mr Martin also discussed his republicanism, saying it was in the tradition of Wolfe Tone, to achieve unity of Catholic, Protestant and dissenter. He said the national question was one of the reasons he became involved in politics, but warned that sloganeering would not achieve unity.