‘We don’t want to divide society’: Taoiseach defends decision to pause reopening of indoor hospitality

Varadkar suggests Digital Covid Certificate for travel could be adapted for indoor dining

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, responding to a Dáil question from Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, has said that decision to pause the reopening of indoor hospitality is to protect the progress Ireland has already made in lifting Covid-19 restrictions.

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said there are hopes the link between Covid-19 Delta variant cases and hospitalisation is being broken through vaccination but this is not certain and has to be monitored.

On Wednesday the National Public Health Emergency Team confirmed 452 further cases of Covid-19 in the State.

Forty-four people are in hospital with Covid-19, 14 of whom are in ICU.

Speaking in the Dáil on Wednesday, he echoed the remarks earlier of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar that it was the right decision to pause the full re-opening of the hospitality sector, and insisted: “We don’t want to divide society. We want to protect people.”

The Taoiseach challenged Opposition leaders to state whether they would have proceeded with the full re-opening of indoor dining as he faced further criticism over the plans for this to be permitted only for the fully vaccinated.

Mr Martin insisted that the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) issued stark warnings about hospitalisation and deaths.

And he quoted Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who he spoke to on Tuesday, and who said that “Delta will rip through an unvaccinated population”.

But Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said: “We are at last minute.com again, 11th hour decision making again, marching this sector to the top of the hill, to march them back down again”.

The Government is giving “zero consideration” to young people. She said “it is divisive to single out young people who do not have the opportunity to avail of vaccination and to say to them, ‘yes you can work in this sector but you cannot work in this sector’”.

She said the dangers of Delta were known about weeks before and Tuesday’s announcement was a new peak of “chaos” for this Government.

Mr Martin insisted that they could not proceed with full re-opening on July 5th based on Nphet modelling as he accused Ms McDonald of exploiting the situation for political and electoral reasons.

He asked would she still have proceeded with re-opening “given the warnings and projections that we bought in relation to the impact of the debt debate”.

Mr Martin added that he was fully aware of the devastation for the hospitality sector and society in general.

He insisted that vaccinations are the most effective weapon against it but Ms McDonald said the Government had “stubbornly” ignored antigen testing that other countries were using.

Mr Martin indicated that such testing could be incorporated in the plan under development for those who are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 could access indoor dining.

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said that “you announced what amount to an indefinite delay on the re-opening of indoor hospitality”.

She asked when the Chief Medical Officer had notified the Government about the increased danger of the Delta variant which last week accounted for 20 per cent of the previous week’s cases.

She also asked if Niac’s (National Immunisation Advisory Committee) advice about giving the AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines to those under 40 had been included in Nphet’s modelling for potential cases.

And she hit out at the Government’s failure to brief the Opposition since December. People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said if the Government wanted the Opposition to work with them they had to brief them.

Labour leader Alan Kelly said the Government was discriminating against 200,000 people under 35 in its approach to allowing indoor dining only for the fully vaccinated.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) advice on indoor dining would be released for scrutiny. Photograph: Damien Eagers
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) advice on indoor dining would be released for scrutiny. Photograph: Damien Eagers

Earlier, Mr Varadkar insisted the Government made the right decision to “pause” the reopening of indoor hospitality until more information about the Delta variant of Covid-19 became available.

He told an Oireachtas committee on Wednesday morning that if the most pessimistic projections for Covid-19, set out by Nphet, were not realised by the experience on the ground in Britain, it may allow the Cabinet here to make different decisions in the future.

He said authorities in Scotland seemed to be taking a more optimistic view even though record Covid -19 cases were being reported.

“They are saying the link between cases and hospitalisations, while not broken, is so weakened that they feel they can keep indoor dining open – and may even be able to ease restrictions further on July 19th.

“Fingers crossed and hoping and praying they are right.”

Mr Varadkar said if authorities in Scotland and elsewhere in Britain were correct, it could mean that the most pessimistic scenario for the progression of Covid-19 in Ireland may not be realised.

He said it could mean that the actual position could be closer to the optimistic or central projection set out by Nphet, “and that may allow us to make different decisions”.

However, he said the Government had “made the right decision to pause until we have more information”.

Total doses distributed to Ireland Total doses administered in Ireland
8,557,330 7,049,574

Hospital Report

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU
297 63

He was speaking at the Oireachtas select committee on enterprise and employment.

Before that, Mr Varadkar suggested the Digital Covid Certificate for travel could be adapted for indoor hospitality.

Although the Government had taken a decision months ago not to go the route of a ‘vaccination passport’, it would now see if the digital travel-cert mechanism could be adapted for indoor dining and drinking.

“This could be the pathway to do that,” he told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.

Mr Varadkar also said the Government would not commission an independent evaluation of Nphet advice on indoor dining.

However, all the data would be released for scrutiny.

Mr Varadkar said he hoped that Nphet’s worst-case scenario modelling turned out to be wrong but said no government could have taken a different decision when faced with warning of such high numbers of potential deaths.

Close attention would be paid to how the Delta variant progressed in Britain, the Tánaiste said, adding until such time as figures on deaths and hospitalisations from there were available, no other decision could be made.

There would be anomalies and there were details that would have to be worked out, Mr Varadkar said.

The Government would now do three things, he said. It would accelerate the vaccination programme, monitor the Delta wave and develop a ‘corona pass’ for those who were fully vaccinated and recovered from Covid-19.

The public health advice was that this was “a significant pathway” towards reopening the hospitality sector and keeping it open.

Mr Varadkar said he would meet representatives for the sector today “to see what will work”. The meeting is expected to take place mid-afternoon.

The details of Nphet’s modelling on Monday had been surprising and it had been the first time for the Government to see the details, Mr Varadkar said, adding that as new data became available plans would change.

Half of the adult population was now fully vaccinated, and more people would be vaccinated in the coming weeks, he added.

When asked if it was fair to tell young people that it was okay to work in hospitality but not use it themselves, he said: “I don’t think anything’s fair about this pandemic and science isn’t always fair. It is unfair, but this is the reality that faces us.”

The best thing that could be done for young people was to get them vaccinated as soon as possible which was why the news on AstraZeneca and Janssen meant they could be vaccinated in the coming weeks, Mr Varadkar said.

Was it fair to say to some businesses that they would never reopen, he added.

As a public servant, Mr Varadkar said he was grateful “every single day” to have a job. He was very aware of the difficulties faced by people who had to shutter their businesses.

Mr Varadkar expressed disappointment at the critical response of the Labour and Social Democrat parties to Tuesday’s announcement about the hospitality sector.

Up to now they had said to follow the public health advice, he said. He would ensure they were fully briefed on the situation and would meet with the CMO.

Separately, speaking on Newstalk radio, Mr Varadkar said a digital cert of vaccination meant “potentially never having to lock down again”.

He said that the ‘pause’ until July 19th meant there were now three weeks to develop plans for the corona pass that could pave the way for indoor hospitality, indoor sports and live events even if there was “a Delta wave.”

“That’s one of the things that maybe isn’t fully understood about the decision and advice from yesterday. Option one is to not reopen indoors until we have herd immunity - and who really knows when that will be. We’d hoped it would be September, but maybe not.

“Now we have this option to use a corona pass and potentially never having to lock down again.”

Mr Varadkar explained that the Government had not known how “stark” Nphet’s modelling would be until they were presented with the details on Monday.

“We asked them to do the modelling quickly to get the advice to us quickly so we could make a decision earlier than planned. That was part of the reason why I think it was so rushed - they’re not entirely to blame for that. I don’t think the result would be different.”

Mr Varadkar said everyone had known recently about the possibility that a “delay of two or three weeks was being suggested.”

Earlier, a senior member of Nphet set out the reasons for concern over the threat posed by the Delta variant of Covid-19.

Medical virologist Dr Cillian De Gascun. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Medical virologist Dr Cillian De Gascun. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

The intervention by medical virologist Dr Cillian De Gascun comes after the resumption of indoor hospitality services was postponed by Government on the back of Nphet advice.

Nphet has said when indoor dining and drinking does reopen it should be limited to people who have been fully vaccinated or are immune because they had a Covid infection in the last nine months.

The Government decision to adopt the Nphet advice decision sparked a backlash in the hospitality sector and prompted calls for an independent review of the stark Nphet projections on the potential hospitalisations and deaths over the next three months due to the impact of Delta.

While he did not mention the controversy over the decision Dr De Gascun, the director of UCD’s National Virus Reference Laboratory, outlined the threat posed by Delta “and the reasons for our concern” in a lengthy Twitter thread on Tuesday night.

He said: “As any new variant emerges, there are three main issues that we consider: transmissibility; infection severity; and impact on pre-existing immunity (reinfection risk) and vaccine effectiveness.

“Firstly, based on available evidence, the Delta variant appears to be between 40 per cent and 60 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which has been dominant in Ireland for the last five months.”

He added: “When compared with Alpha, Delta exhibits an increased growth rate, an increased secondary attack rate, increased household transmission, and laboratory evidence of increased replication in biological systems that model the human airway.

“As such, because the Alpha variant was itself significantly more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, we can say that Delta is almost certainly at least twice as transmissible as the virus we experienced last summer.”

Dr De Gascun said that “secondly, if we look at infection severity, data from Scotland and England show an increased risk of hospitalisation among individuals infected with the Delta variant compared to Alpha. Infection with Delta roughly doubled the risk of hospitalisation.”

He said the case-fatality rate for Delta (0.3 per cent) at this time appears to be lower than that for Alpha (2 per cent) but “a large number of cases are still within the follow-up period, so we still have more to learn about the clinical course of disease with Delta infection.”

Dr De Gascun adds that: “Thirdly, looking at immunity, neutralisation studies using convalescent sera show a reduction in neutralisation against Delta.”

He said this does not, yet at least, appear to be associated with an increase in reinfections among recovered individuals.

“However, we do see a reduction in vaccine effectiveness (VE) for Delta compared with Alpha against symptomatic infection, particularly after one dose. “Although this is concerning, VE against Delta is high after two doses, and VE against hospitalisation is maintained,” he said.

Dr De Gascun said Delta is the dominant variant in the UK accounting for approximately 97 per cent of cases and as a consequence, case numbers, hospitalisations, and deaths have increased in recent weeks.

He says the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) also predicts that Delta will be responsible for 90 per cent of EU/EEA infections by the end of August and points to research suggesting that “In Ireland, it’s likely Delta will become dominant much sooner than that.”

That the “dramatic increase in the proportion of Delta over the last two weeks will almost certainly lead to Delta dominance by the middle of July, with a consequent increase in case numbers, hospitalisations, and mortality in the following weeks.”

Dr De Gascun says: “However, in contrast to last summer, we now have very effective vaccines. “The key is to protect each other through established public health interventions (hand hygiene, distancing, mask-wearing, managing number of contacts) while the vaccines take effect. He adds: “Please remember that you are not fully vaccinated until two weeks after your second dose of ChAdOx1 Astra Zeneca vaccine, or seven days after your second dose of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. “Two doses are required for optimal protection against the Delta variant.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday morning, Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall called for a system similar to the digital travel cert to be used for the hospitality sector.

Such a system would eliminate what she said was the element of discrimination in the Government’s proposal that only people who have been vaccinated would be allowed use indoor dining facilities, she told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.

It did not make sense that a digital cert would allow people to travel, but they were not allowed to dine indoors, she said.

Ms Shortall pointed out that in other countries there were other factors involved in indoor dining such as ventilation and higher quality face masks, all these needed to be discussed in Ireland, she said.

It was a “real problem” and “very discriminatory” to say that it was okay for a young person to work in hospitality, but they could not use the same facilities.

Ms Shortall said she was opposed to a situation where people could not access a service because they were not vaccinated when they had no control over when they could get vaccinated.

It was also wrong to expect hospitality staff to have to check if people had been vaccinated. “That’s not their business.” Other countries use PCR and antigen tests, she added.

Ms Shortall called for the introduction of measures similar to the digital travel cert, she also said there should have been discussions in advance with the hospitality sector to draw up a plan.

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