Tánaiste: More than Covid-19 case numbers should be looked at to decide restrictions

Taoiseach says there is ‘always an ongoing tension’ between economy and public health

Public health doctors and politicians should examine more than just Covid-19 case numbers when deciding on economic restrictions, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.

Mr Varadkar also said that it is not realistic to continue locking down the economy until Covid-19 is eradicated.

In an interview with The Currency, the Fine Gael leader said that there are increasing coronavirus cases across Europe and Ireland but there is "only a modest increase in the number of people who are in hospital, and also thankfully, the amount of people who are passing away."

“Any death is regrettable, and our sympathies go to the families affected, but this second wave which is happening across Europe and Ireland is very different. As we speak now, only 1 per cent of our hospital beds have Covid patients in them and maybe 10 or 15 per cent of ICU. If it got three or four times worse, it would still be only using up a relatively small amount of our health service capacity.”


Mr Varadkar said that other countries such as Belgium are no longer using case numbers to make their decisions on restrictions and on policy.

“They are looking at hospitalisations, ICU capacity and on deaths. It is a job for us as politicians to say to the public health people that maybe we should be focusing on that. The objective was to make sure our health service did not get overwhelmed, not to lock down the country and the economy until there was no Covid at all. That is not realistic.”

Asked about the remarks, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said the number of Covid-19 hospitalisations and intensive care admissions should be taken into account when deciding on potential restrictions .

Speaking in Brussels, Mr Martin sounded a note of caution however stating that hospital admissions are rising and at a “serious” level.

Asked if other factors such as admissions should be taken into account, he said: “I think they always have been to a degree. “Of course we think they should be taken into account. There is a relationship between case numbers and ICU admissions and hospitalisations and that is what always concern public health officials.”

“The relationship was quite clear in the first phase, which led to the lockdown, in the second phase there is a longer time lag between case numbers and the numbers going into ICU.

“But the numbers are rising in hospitals now I think we were over 130 yesterday so it is serious.”

“We have a national plan in terms of the various levels and it is very important that we all do everything we can to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Mr Martin said there is “always an ongoing tension” between the competing priorities of the economy and public health.

“Our objectives have always been to get the schools reopened and get our children back into a learning environment and in addition to that to keep as much of our health services going in terms of the non covid aspects of the health services, diagnostics, cardiac, oncology, paediatric health and to try and get waiting lists down.”

Mr Varadkar has also indicated that the Government is examining a further extension of the commercial rates holiday for businesses that are most affected by the pandemic as part of Budget 2021.

He is also examining alterations to the wage support subsidy for businesses that have seen a very big reduction in turnover. He also told the publication that while the Government has opted for the stay and spend initiative rather than VAT cuts, “the picture now looks a little bit different.”

On Brexit, the Tánaiste says he still believes a deal can be struck. “It will be no quotas, no tariffs, some form of minimum standards and controls on state aid and fishing. I think that is still achievable. But we have to plan for the possibility that it won’t be.” He also pledged to introduce new sick pay proposals. “I know the unions will want it, the Government wants it too, but I want to work with employers to design a sick pay scheme that works for them and can be phased in.”

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times