A row has broken out over the provision of free antigen tests in the Houses of the Oireachtas, amid contradictory claims over whether TDs and Senators would be able to avail of the service.
The Houses of the Oireachtas Service stated on Thursday afternoon that the antigen tests will not be free to members. However, multiple sources on the Oireachtas business committee, which was told of the plan on Thursday morning, indicated to the contrary, saying their firm impression after the meeting was that TDs and Senators were to be included in the plan.
The suggestion that members were to be given free tests caused an immediate backlash, as Government’s has said free tests will not be made available to the public. Details of its plan to subsidise the cost of the tests are awaited.
Despite the Oireachtas statement, several committee members - speaking privately - said they were of the view that the meeting was told TDs and Senators were to be included.
Independent TD Mattie McGrath said he raised objections to this aspect at the meeting, said he shared this view. “Why would I have objected (otherwise)?” he told The Irish Times.
The three Government party whips, all of whom are on the committee, wrote to the Ceann Comhairle telling him their parties would pay for their members’ tests, saying: “Further to the notification by the Oireachtas service at the Business Committee today of providing free antigen tests to the parliamentary community we feel it is necessary to ensure that parties and groups would make a full contribution to the cost of these tests if they are used by members or their staff.”
“We would ask that formal arrangements be put in place to ensure that this can be facilitated for the three parties undersigned.” This referred to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.
In a Dáil exchange, Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghaíl told Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon that it was “completely untrue” that TDs and Senators would be given tests for free.
Mr Gannon had told the Dáil that 637,000 people are living in poverty and “today we find TDs and Senators are going to get free antigen test. That is ludicrous.”
The Ceann Comhairle interrupted him and said “that is completely untrue, completely untrue” and “if you’re going to come in here and make statements or rush out to the media please get your facts correct.”
Mr Gannon called on him to “retract that statement” or tell him about the scheme under which TDs can pay for antigen tests.
“You’re telling people something that’s completely incorrect,” he said.
But Mr Gannon pointing to the business committee making the decision he said the Ceann Comhairle “was making a false statement”.
The Ceann Comhairle said that over 12,00 people use Leinster House as their base. The matter was discussed by the business committee in terms of staffing. The view was that antigen tests should be made available from existing House resources.
He said a proposal for antigen testing was brought to the business committee because there were nine cases of Covid-19 last week in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
He said that was four times the previous incidence of infection.
Mr O Fearghaíl said that on a sitting day there are an average of 800 people in Leinster House and going on national statistics “that means there are about eight people at anyone time on a sitting day who have Covid but are non-symptomatic”.
Earlier Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty said it was time for free antigen tests for everyone because of the need for fairness. He said here would now be free antigen tests to TDs, Senators, Ministers and staff but frontline public workers, nurses doctors, teachers and those in retail “have to pay up”.
Mr Ryan rejected the “them and us narrative” and said “that’s not where any member of this House wants to be”. He said the proposal came from the Oireachtas service to the business committee in terms of how the cost is covered and “not be treated in any way differently to any other section of our society”.
Meanwhile, the Green party whip made a statement to the Dáil about the matter.
Marc O Cathasaigh later told the Dáil that an email signed by the three Government party whips called for all political parties and groups to make a “full contribution” to the cost of antigen tests if they are used by either TDs and Senators or staff.
The whips asked that formal arrangements would be put in place to ensure this could be facilitated by the Government parties.
Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Whip Brendan Griffin also signed the email.