Varadkar forced to defend ‘scrapping’ vaccine priority list at FG meeting

Tánaiste says shift in rollout plan could have been handled better with greater consultation

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has been forced to defend the Government's decision to change the national vaccination plan after one of his party's TDs accused the Cabinet of "scrapping the list" of people who could expect to be vaccinated sooner such as teachers and gardaí.

In written exchanges over the party's chat feature during Wednesday night's parliamentary party meeting, Fine Gael TD John Paul Phelan wrote that "teachers and gardaí and childcare workers were slated for specific positions on [the] vaccination schedule."

“We have changed that,” he wrote, adding that there were “disingenuous answers” given on the topic.

Mr Varadkar responded and said “not quite. The list of workers/professions was never defined.”


He said that “assumptions were made and expectations created but that is a different thing”.

Mr Phelan said, in a chat that could be seen by the whole party, that “those categories knew where they were on the list. Now we have scrapped the list.”

Mr Varadkar asked: “Who told them that they were? Send me the link/statement/or circular…”

Mr Phelan said that the answers were “tone deaf and there is an underlying tone about colleagues raising issues which is utterly unacceptable”.

However, Mr Varadkar did tell the meeting the change to a predominantly age-based priority system could have been handled better.

Mr Varadkar is understood to have said that there should have been greater consultation with unions and stakeholders around the plan to move to an age-based system rather than an age and profession-based system.

The Government has agreed to overhaul the national vaccination programme to an age-based system, once those aged 70 years and older, the vulnerable and people with underlying conditions are immunised.

The decision has sparked concern among some groups such as teachers, gardaí and childcare workers who fear that they will be further back the list at a time when they are in direct contact with the public. Sources have said that Mr Varadkar said that the public health advice was late coming in the Government.

It is understood he said it would have been better if Ministers had got it earlier so that they could have consulted unions. Instead, the information around the changes to the plan leaked as the Cabinet was meeting.

He is also understood to have strongly defended the move to the new priority system saying the science behind the decision was “incontrovertible”.

It is understood Mr Varadkar also told the meeting that he regrets that the resumption of click-and-collect services was not backed by the National Public Health Emergency Team. Another source said that Mr Varadkar would have been happy to see people being allowed to meet in gardens but that the public health advice was against this.

A number of TDs also called for the Government to expedite the rollout of antigen testing as a tool to help the reopening of the country. Fine Gael Seanad leader Regina Doherty led the calls for increased rapid testing and was told that the report examining the issue would go to Cabinet either next week or the week after.

It is understood that Dublin Bay South TD Eoghan Murphy said Ireland had been "behind the curve" on the science of the matter and said the risks were outweighed by the rewards.

He also asked whether the Government would allow antigen testing pilot projects in relation to mass gatherings such as sporting event and arts events. Sources say Mr Varadkar compared the situation to last year’s debate on wearing masks where some people became “entrenched” in their views even though the science had become clear.

There was also disquiet about an interview on RTÉ's Morning Ireland with the Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. Speaking about the lack of availability of children's shoes, Mr Donohoe on Wednesday morning hit back angrily at a suggestion that the issue was linked to Fine Gael's notorious 1982 budget under former taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald.

Fine Gael TD Patrick O'Donovan told the meeting he believed the interview left "a lot to be desired" while Senator Jerry Buttimer questioned whether a complaint should be lodged with RTÉ.

It is also understood that the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee told the meeting that she wanted to organise a meeting between health officials and garda unions to explain the logic behind the change in the vaccine plans.

Sources at the meeting on Wednesday evening say there is a growing fear that the Government has created a political issue with the sudden change in the programme that would result in pressure for elements of the plan to be rowed back on.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times