Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has criticised Tánaiste Leo Varadkar for his comments about the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) on Monday night.
It was not helpful for a senior member of the Government to “come out and gratuitously attack NPHET”, she told Newstalk Breakfast.
Mr Varadkar criticised the chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan for announcing public health recommendations on Sunday night that he said were not “thought through” and without consulting the Government in advance.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne show on Monday night, after the Government had announced all counties were moving to Level 3 from midnight on Tuesday, Mr Varadkar said the advice of NPHET to move to Level 5 had “landed on us” on Sunday night.
Exposing deep tensions between NPHET and the Government, Mr Varadkar said Dr Holohan accepted there should have been prior consultation and there would not be a repeat of the incident.
Ms McDonald, on Tuesday morning, said the country had not been ready to move to Level 5 as recommended by NPHET. Such a move would have been “too dramatic,” she said. “The Government quite correctly governed.” NPHET’s role was to advise, they had done that.
Ms McDonald said she agreed with NPHET’s concern about the capacity of hospitals and the number of intensive care beds. “When NPHET says it is concerned, it is bang on the money.”
During the first wave of the pandemic earlier in the year people had been grateful for the “steady advice” from NPHET who had brought the population with them. That was not the case now and it would be difficult to rectify that, she said.
When asked about the role of the gardaí in enforcing restrictions, Ms McDonald said they had sufficient powers and they could recommend and encourage people to abide by restrictions, and if necessary in other circumstances they could intervene.
“I hope that will be the exception rather than the rule.”
The Sinn Féin leader later expressed concern on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme that the Government was “squaring up to NPHET and answering them back in terms of healthcare capacity”.
The absence of proper income supports would have meant a move to Level 5 restrictions would have been catastrophic for people’s livelihoods, she said.
NPHET’s assessment that a very low level of capacity in the health service left the country vulnerable should be noted, said Ms McDonald. The levels of transmission of the virus are “very, very high” and “we have to take actions to break chains of transmission”, she added.
Ms McDonald later tweeted: “NPHET and Tony Holohan are not responsible for the state of our health services - that’s on Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin.”
Meanwhile, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said on Tuesday morning that the decision to move the whole country to Level 3 restrictions was an appropriate measure at this time and that the factors required to move to Level 5 had not been met.
The minister underlined that NPHET and the Government had different jobs to do: the role of the Chief Medical Officer and NPHET was to advise the Government and that was what they had done, he said. The Government had to take into consideration the needs of the whole country, the economy and protecting jobs.
Mr Donnelly said he was currently in Budget negotiations around the funding of the health service for the next year, but that this would only work with a functioning economy.
Moving to Level 3 worked well in Laois, Offaly and Kildare while in Dublin the number of cases have stabilised, he said, adding that the virus now needed to be suppressed.
Mr Donnelly said he did not believe that the data relating to the period between last Thursday and Sunday warranted a move to Level 5.
When asked on two occasions if he would take responsibility for failing to take NPHET’s advice if there was a surge in cases, the Minister said the Government had looked at all the evidence and had made the decision that was best for the country.
It was not about right or wrong decisions, it was about decisions based on the best evidence, he said.
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath said the Government and NPHET had to “reboot” their relationship as they are going to have to rely on each other for the duration of the Covid pandemic.
The relationship between the Government and NPHET has to be one of mutual respect and trust, Mr McGrath told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland. However, he cautioned that ministers need to “listen carefully” to the group’s advice.
The Government values the advice of NPHET, but when doing so they have to take into account a wider set of factors, he added.