Vaccine supply will only improve with increased manufacturing, says Martin

Fine Gael party meeting hears calls to allow more people attend religious services

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said  a lot of ‘easy narratives’ about vaccination supply and distribution were out there but the challenge remained a significant one.  File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said a lot of ‘easy narratives’ about vaccination supply and distribution were out there but the challenge remained a significant one. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has told his parliamentary party there is no “magic tree” when it comes to vaccinating the population of the State quickly.

Mr Martin told the weekly meeting of Fianna Fáil’s TDs and Senators on Wednesday night that the Government had spoken to every major vaccine manufacturer and also offered assistance to Pfizer, which already has a large facility in Cork, if it wished to begin manufacturing in Ireland.

He said that a lot of “easy narratives” about vaccination supply and distribution were out there but the challenge remained a significant one. His own view was that supply could only be improved by increased manufacturing.

According to others who attended the meeting, Mr Martin also said he had spoken to EU Commissioner on Internal Markets, Thierry Breton, on Wednesday about continuing supply. Mr Breton is the commissioner who is responsible for overseeing vaccination supply throughout the EU.

The Taoiseach also said he would be willing for Ireland to use Chinese vaccines, and the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, if they were approved by the European Medicines Agency.

The meeting was told that good progress had been made and the impact of vaccinations on nursing homes had reduced the incidence rate to less than 1 per cent in those residences.

However, he dampened down any expectations of further easing of restrictions in April beyond the already flagged changes of a resumption of construction, a lifting of the 5km travel limit, as well as a limited return of outdoor activities.

“We will not be engaging in speculation beyond that and we need to keep the focus to get the numbers down,” he said.

He suggested to the meeting the Government would only begin to consider options for reopening society once all those in vulnerable groups have been vaccinated.

The Galway West TD Eamon Ó Cuív raised the issue of minimum unit pricing on alcohol. He said it had been law since 2018 but was never commenced.

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He told the meeting there seemed to be a fear of upsetting the balance of trade in the Border areas. He pointed to Scotland where it was working well even though it shares a land border with England.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting that the idea any country had spare vaccines was ‘not realistic’. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting that the idea any country had spare vaccines was ‘not realistic’. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Spare vaccines

Meanwhile, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting that the idea any country had spare vaccines was “not realistic”. He said that Ireland was performing better on vaccinations and on Covid-19 than people currently believe, and that the HSE was getting vaccines into arms within days of arrivals – and that the situation would improve as supplies become more reliable.

The meeting also heard calls for more flexibility on numbers permitted at religious services, in the wake of criticism of the Government’s stance by Catholic leaders.

Sources at the meeting indicated that Ministers of State Josepha Madigan and Martin Heydon raised the issue of the caps at Masses and funerals respectively.

On Tuesday, the Irish Bishops Conference issued a statement saying that ongoing “severe restrictions” on funeral Masses were “causing untold grief to many families”.

The four Catholic Archbishops met last month with Mr Martin to outline the impact of Covid-19 on people in the church, and said on Tuesday he had promised to give “serious consideration” to their arguments around restrictions on religious worship – including that the number of mourners permitted at funeral services be increased to 25.

The archbishops said they noted “with disappointment” that none of the issues they raised had been responded to.

Sources at the meeting said Ms Madigan quoted Trinity College Dublin academic Dr Oran Doyle, arguing that religious gatherings are not actually restricted under health regulations. She called for a “minimal return to Mass” in the run up to Easter, and said that Ireland is “out of step” in having a total ban on religious services, adding that Mass is “not a hobby” but a place of “solace and support”.

Mr Heydon told the parliamentary party meeting that he understood the reasons for restrictions, but said that as Covid-19 case numbers fall, increasing the numbers at funerals should be a “priority”.

He said that there was a disproportionate impact on larger families, with instances of grandchildren being unable to attend the funeral of a grandparent.

Mr Varadkar said that Covid-19 was almost gone as a severe disease in nursing homes, and there had been good results among frontline healthcare workers, while vital indicators of demand on the healthcare system were improving.

There were frustrations at the meeting regarding the “slippage” of vaccine delivery, but Mr Varadkar said authorisation, manufacturing and supply of the vaccines was not in Government’s control. He told the meeting no decision on easing restrictions would be made until the week leading up to April 5th, warning that the focus would be to not jeopardise schools and childcare. He said that if the Government “jumped ahead” of the plan, it could end up going backwards.

The Fine Gael’s meeting also heard criticism of Davy Stockbrokers and the banking sector, with members flagging risks to rural communities which could be left without services as bank branches shut.

A source said there was “lots of anger” at the meeting over the issues – with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe telling colleagues he unambiguously condemned the behaviour of executives involved, sources said.

However, he told party colleagues that he could not comment in detail on it as it was a sensitive matter. Mr Varadkar told the meeting the Government had not been forewarned about the Central Bank findings.

Several TDs criticised Davy, including former minister for housing Eoghan Murphy, who also warned that the withdrawal of Ulster Bank from the Irish market only strengthens the remaining two pillar banks – Bank of Ireland and AIB. He said that he does not trust those two banks, or their culture, and the closure of Bank of Ireland branches “underlines the risk” of Irish people relying on them. Several TDs and Senators spoke about strengthening credit unions.

Carlow-Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan also criticised the closure of Bank of Ireland branches, which he said left “vast swathes” of the country without commercial banking. He said the State’s action on Davy so far was correct, but said there may be further action on the matter from the authorities. Mr Murphy and Mr Phelan said a “third force” was needed in Irish banking and there should be a proactive search for one.

The parliamentary party also discussed the rejuvenation of rural towns, with former Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan saying there should be a new focus on imagination and creativity, and that the issues facing town centres weren’t a lack of money. He argued that pumping government grants into paving and the refurbishment of old buildings wouldn’t work in isolation.

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