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Varadkar: Move to Level 5 is ‘our one last best shot’

Inside Politics: Tánaiste tells FG meeting the HSE had ‘dumped’ Covid tracing workload on GPs

Ireland awakens this morning on the first day of a six-week lockdown.

It’s hard to believe, but it was only two weeks ago the country moved to a nationwide Level 3 status.

The phrase “a week is a long time in politics” may be a truism, but it’s clearly nothing compared to a week in a pandemic.

At a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party last night, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar outlined for TDs and senators how we got to this point.


He told the party that not only were cases increasing but they were increasing at a rate that was much faster than previously witnessed.

Mr Varadkar said there was a steady but not yet alarming rise in Covid-19 hospitalisations.

The Fine Gael leader also defended the Government’s decision to rebuff Nphet’s first request to move the country to a Level 5.

After months of tacking on extra restrictions or rules every two weeks or so, it was time to be “decisive”, he said. “This means there is really nowhere else to go beyond a Level 5. It will either work, or it won’t,” one source recalled Varadkar as saying. A judgment on whether this lockdown does the job or not will only become apparent in the next three to four weeks, he said.

Varadkar described the move as “our one last best shot” and said if it does work, those advocating for a “zero Covid” approach will be buoyed by the figures and call for the lockdown to be extended beyond early December. He didn’t say what the plan would be if this does not work.

The Tánaiste’s remarks gave us a glimpse of the rationale behind his decision to back a move to the highest level of restrictions. It is clear he believed Level 5 was inevitable and that if it didn’t happen now it would have to happen in a fortnight or so.

Also of note were warnings the Tánaiste made about public goodwill. It may have been there for all to see in April, but it is in shorter supply this time around. “It is different now. We can all feel it,” he said. As a consequence, enforcement will be much more important, the meeting was told.

While many were paying close attention to his explanation for the Level 5 move, the hot topic was the testing and tracing controversy, details of which were revealed by my colleague Simon Carswell in this article.

In both the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meetings, TDs said they were receiving a barrage of calls from general practitioners who have been overwhelmed with calls.

Varadkar and Taoiseach Micheál Martin have said the first they learned of the issue was through the Irish Times report on Tuesday night that revealed the contact tracing system was so overwhelmed last weekend that people who tested positive were being asked to do their own contact tracing.

Yesterday up to 2,500 people received a text asking them to tell their close contacts to ring their GPs immediately to seek a Covid-19 test.

In his typical style, Varadkar didn’t hold back when questioned by TDs on it last night. He said the HSE had “dumped” the workload on GPs, something he described as “disappointing”.

He also said the HSE’s plans to rehire temporary tracers who previously did the job had clearly not succeeded.

And so, once again, tensions between Government and health officials have been laid bare – expect to hear more on this issue in the Dáil and on the airwaves today.

Here is the latest in our lead, and here is a more specific report on what went down in the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meetings last night.

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Outside of Leinster House, the main set piece will be an address at Dublin Castle given by Taoiseach Micheál Martin on the “shared island” initiative.

Here's a report on that from Pat Leahy.

In the Dáil, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee takes parliamentary questions at 9am. A fair chunk of the business in the Dáil today will be given over to discussing an extension to the “sunset clause” for emergency Covid-19 legislation that would have seen the sweeping powers given to Government expire on November 9th. It seems like almost wishful thinking now to imagine that the legislation would only be needed up until this point.

Also due for debate is the Government’s planned new law to ensure there are no evictions for the period of 5km travel restrictions. Sinn Féin believes the associated Bill is “welcome but weak” and wants the ban to remain in place while there are any restrictions in people’s homes and when there are county-by-county lockdowns.

Leaders’ Questions will kick off at noon. Expect to hear more about the overwhelmed Covid-19 tracing service.

The Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records Bill is back up, too. The Opposition has raised concerns that the Bill will result in the archive of the commission into mother and baby homes being sealed for 30 years. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has countered that the aim is to “preserve invaluable information, not to put it beyond reach”.

The rest of the Dáil schedule is here.

In the Seanad, there is an interesting Bill up for discussion from a range of senators led by Independent Senator Lynn Ruane. The Electoral (Civil Society Freedom) (Amendment) Bill 2019 would amend the current electoral laws to protect the right to freedom of association and expression for civil society organisations in Ireland. The full Seanad schedule can be found here.

Meanwhile the Public Accounts Committee, Foreign Affairs Committee and Good Friday implementation Committee all meet today. Here are their plans.