The phone call from Brussels that rescued the Government's vaccine rollout plan
State’s pandemic arsenal punctured by hotel booking pause and potential bypass routes
Ireland is set to receive almost 550,000 more Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines under an EU deal
Glum was the word which was used to describe the updates that Taoiseach Micheál Martin gave to Cabinet about the vaccine rollout on Wednesday.
He talked Ministers through the potential impacts of the pause on the administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and what it would mean if the vaccine was temporarily removed from the pitch while a small number of rare blood clots were investigated. The ultimate thrust of it was that the State’s vaccination targets could come up short.
That was until an unexpected message appeared on the Taoiseach’s phone about an imminent announcement from European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. As is usually the case in the retelling of a good story, there are different versions.
One version is that Martin leaped up and stepped out of the room to be told a deal had been struck which would see European Union countries receive 50 million more Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines produced in the second quarter, with Ireland receiving almost 550,000 of those. Reappearing in one of the rooms that the meeting was taking place, he revealed the good news to Ministers who immediately began totting up the numbers on their notepads.
The other version is that he reappeared, delighted, but said he was keeping schtum in case the good news leaked. Too late, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar apparently said, pointing out it was already all over Twitter.
Bump in the road
Either way, the development was the shot in the arm the Government so desperately needed after yet another sizeable bump in the road. Ministers began that meeting trying to find a way to digest the bad news, but they left it knowing that they could confidently say that the State is on track in its target to offer four out of five adults a vaccine by the end of June.
At the start of the day, the prediction was that 3.4 million doses would be administered in the second quarter. This rose to 3.9 million with the Pfizer announcement and could rise again to 4.5 million if everything works out with Johnson&Johnson.
Given the fact that the strategy to emerge from lockdown is to vaccinate as many vulnerable people as quickly as possible, a lot is riding on this going to plan.
Leaving the arrival of the white knight in shining armour aside, difficult questions remain about other aspects of the State’s response to the pandemic.
One part of the arsenal is the mandatory hotel quarantine system which has been paused.
Given that passengers from 71 high-risk countries cannot book a space in the system until Monday, the decision amounts to an effective travel pause from those countries.
Many people have rightfully asked about what happens to people who arrive in Ireland without a hotel booking if there is no space available . The Irish Times asked this question of the Department of Transport and the Department of Health.
The Department of Health simply said: “Unless exempt, you must pre-book mandatory hotel quarantine before travelling to Ireland.” And yet there are clearly people arriving into the country without a booking, leaving that question, once again, unanswered.
In relation to capacity, other questions have rightfully been asked about whether the department considered appointing a panel of hotels on a so-called cascading framework which would mean that extra rooms could be added if more space was needed. Furthermore, there are questions around whether the department is in talks with other hotel groups about drastically increasing capacity.
The Department of Health said that “matters related to contracts between the State and suppliers are commercially sensitive”. It said increasing the capacity of hotel quarantine also necessitates increasing the scale of support services.
Another serious concern expressed by Government figures is around people potentially bypassing hotel quarantine by flying into Belfast or London first. The department says “anyone arriving overland into Ireland from Northern Ireland who has been in or through a designated state in the previous 14 days is legally required to book a room in mandatory hotel quarantine”.
The department said the “UK also has mandatory hotel quarantine requirements which the traveller may have been required to fulfil before arriving into Ireland or Northern Ireland.” Those arguments will do little to assuage the genuine concern at political level, and among the public, about the growing chinks in the State’s armour.