Taoiseach and Tánaiste defend vaccine pass u-turn amid hospitality backlash

Ministers point to dire warnings about potential impact of the Delta variant combined with plans to reopen indoors

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has told an Oireachtas committee that he feels the Government have made the correct decision to pause the reopening of indoor hospitality "until we have more information" about the Delta variant of Covid-19. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar have sought to defend a u-turn on vaccine passes to access indoor services in pubs and restaurants amid a huge backlash from the hospitality sector and politicians.

They both pointed to dire warnings about the potential impact of the highly transmissible Delta variant of Covid-19 combined with plans to reopen indoor hospitality on July 5th as they defended Tuesday’s Government decision.

The Government had been against the idea of vaccine passes to access domestic services with civil liberties concerns among the reasons previously cited for this position.

However, after stark advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) Ministers have decided to halt the reopening of indoor services until a workable vaccine pass system is in place.

Allowing communions and confirmations - which had been due to go ahead after July 5th - has also been postponed.

People who are getting married will still be allowed have up to 50 guests from that date and outdoor sports events will see attendances of up to 200 for most venues or 500 for those with a capacity of 5,000 or more.

The new advice that AstraZeneca and Jannsen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccines can be used for the under 40s was highlighted as a positive outcome of the deliberations of recent days what will allow the rollout to be sped up for younger people.

A plan for implementing such a system is to be drawn up by July 19th but no date has been set for when restaurants and pubs can reopen for indoor diners.

At the post-Cabinet press conference Mr Martin was asked about his previous opposition to the vaccine passes and a suggestion he made at a Fianna Fáil meeting in April that they would only be used for international travel.

He said this had been Government policy prior to the arrival of the Delta variant.

However, he said Nphet was “quite stark” in outlining the transmissibility of the Delta variant and the impact it could have on Covid-19 cases, hospitalistaions and deaths and it has advised that indoor hospitality services should only proceed “once a robust and enforceable system of verification of vaccination or immunity status can be put in place to support it.” Mr Martin said the Government will now examine how this can be done in consultation with the hospitality sector.

He said that fines for businesses that don’t comply with a future vaccine pass system “hasn’t entered our consideration at all at this stage” and the Government does not want to bring in a “punitive regime”

Mr Varadkar, the enterprise Minister, said the delay to reopening indoor services is “enormously difficult” for businesses and there have been “many false dawns.”

He added that a workable system will allow for businesses to be kept open during future waves of the virus.

Businesses that had anticipated reopening on July 5th will be able to avail of two double weeks of Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS) payments.

People who had been asked to return to work but now being told they won’t have work next week will be able to avail of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) which will now stay open to new entrants and re-entrants until July 7th.

Asked how the Government can justify bringing in vaccine passes now given its previous plan not to, Mr Varadkar said it was a “big” and “difficult” change.

But he also said: “the alternative is to keep these services and facilities closed until we reach herd immunity and we can’t say when that is. So this might just be the right way forward.

He said other countries like Israel, Denmark, Austria, Latvia and Lithuania had introduced such systems so it can be done.

“I know for some people feel it’s divisive, that they’re being left outside while others can go inside.

“At the same time because we can accelerate the vaccine programme the prospect of people being fully vaccinated is now much closer than it was before.”

He said it looks like the rollout can now do better than the previous target of the end of September for all adults being fully innoculated though this is contingent on supply.

The HSE is said to be working on a plan for using AstraZeneca and Jannsen for younger people.

Mr Martin was asked about Ireland being an outlier in Europe in keeping indoor hospitality closed.

He said Ireland was faster than other countries in introducing restrictions amid a surge in cases last October and November and that “proved to be the correct decision” and suggested other countries might follow this move.

Mr Martin said he did not envisage an independent review of the Nphet advice saying that Irish society has “a plethora of alternative voices from academic circles in our society which will question decisions, policies and indeed modelling.” He said this is healthy but it’s important there is a coherent approach from Government.

On the situation that could see younger unvaccinated staff members in bars and restaurants being asked to serve customers but not being able to avail of indoor hospitality services themselves, Mr Martin said “I see the apparent contradiction of that - of course I do.”

But he said Nphet was clear on the threat of the spread of the variant.

The Nphet advice came as a surprise to Govenment and Mr Varadkar was asked it it was a sign of a dysfunctional relationship that no one from the advisory body appeared to give the coalition an indication of its thinking on vaccine passes prior to last night.

Mr Varadkar said that’s a question for Nphet while insisting Government and Nphet are working well together.