Pat Leahy: Way forward for vaccines, quarantine and strong US relations

Decisive action needed to engineer reopening, control travel and befriend Biden

Empty Temple Bar: To facilitate mandatory quarantining for incoming travellers,  hotels must be found, and security, healthcare, catering and transport need to be arranged. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Bloomberg

Empty Temple Bar: To facilitate mandatory quarantining for incoming travellers, hotels must be found, and security, healthcare, catering and transport need to be arranged. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Bloomberg

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From the Department of We Didn’t Ask You in the First Place, three pieces of advice for the Government:

Things will remain exceptionally difficult for the next six weeks or so. However, once this period has passed, the context will change. As Prof Luke O’Neill has repeatedly pointed out, the current and coming phases of the vaccination programme will dramatically reduce the seriousness and mortality of the virus - perhaps by as much as 90 per cent.

By then the pressure on hospitals and the appalling rate of deaths caused by the third wave will also have abated. Things will look quite different then. Remember that.

Administrations everywhere are most vulnerable politically when they lack purpose and momentum

This is of special relevance to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, currently the Government’s most under-pressure member and the subject of much muttering among his colleagues. Making sure that the vaccination programme is ready to accelerate when more vaccines arrive is what matters for him now.

That requires making sure his officials do certain things by certain dates. If that sounds easy, it’s not. If his new secretary general Robert Watt can manage that, he will be worth whatever they choose to pay him – even if that particular political sore will continue to fester in the coming weeks.

The interim will see a number of difficult decisions to be made by the Government, during a period in which its authority, and therefore capacity, has been diminished by the post-Christmas wave. It will have to manage the first stage of reopening after the current lockdown, while still keeping enough restrictions in place to ensure that infections do not start rising again.

Essentially, the Government’s intention is to reopen schools and construction in a few weeks, starting probably around the beginning of March, and see how that goes for a few weeks. But what the public health experts on the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) make of that remains to be seen.

No matter what you see in public, in private there are quadrangular divisions and tensions between the Department of Health, Nphet, the Department of the Taoiseach and the Health Service Executive. This is hardly surprising, but it sometimes takes up too much of everyone’s energy.

For now, the Government doesn’t dare not to follow the advice of chief medical officer Tony Holohan, even when it disagrees. Several senior figures disagreed with his advice to delay vaccinations of over-70s in order to administer the Pfizer, rather than AstraZeneca, vaccine to them this week.

But they believe the Government cannot diverge from Holohan’s advice right now. This has clear implications for any reopening plan, so the Government should figure out how to deal with it before it happens.

Quarantine logistics

The Government will almost certainly also need to introduce mandatory quarantine in hotels for all travellers coming into the country.

My understanding is this is pretty much understood and accepted throughout the top level of decision-makers; as the country gradually opens up internally, our external borders will become tighter. This will not include the actual Border, of course, but there’s not much can be done about that.

Legislation to this effect is being brought forward to the Oireachtas; officials say it is more or less ready. Well then, get on with it. It sounds simple but the Government needs to do things. Administrations everywhere are most vulnerable politically when they lack purpose and momentum.

There is an argument that leaders become out of touch if they are treated differently to ordinary people. It is one that sometimes has merits

As that legislation is going through, hotels need to be found, security, healthcare, catering and transport need to be arranged. For some reason, this has also been lumped upon the Department of Health, as if they don’t have enough to do.

Actually, I think I know the reason: everybody else was more adept at avoiding it. Never mind that the Department of Justice runs direct provision, or that the Department of Tourism knows some people (you’d hope) who run hotels. The poor eejits in health got lumped with another problem. If it’s not too late (it may be) they should give the quarantine project to someone else.

Washington visit

If he is invited, the Taoiseach should get the vaccination and go to Washington to meet the new president of the United States. There is a huge fear around Government Buildings of a massive backlash if he or his Ministers were to get the vaccine early. It is well-grounded; you can imagine the response on social media and Liveline.

I think this is ridiculous. The Taoiseach has important business to conduct on behalf of the country in Washington, and a week later, at the European Council in Brussels. The suggestion that this is all a jaunt is cheap and ignorant.

Biden is the most Irish president the US has had since Kennedy, and possibly ever. Not to take the opportunity to enhance relations with his administration would be more than a missed opportunity – it would be contrary to the national interest.

Pandemic restrictions may well mean that the White House decides the events can’t take place this year. That decision seems to be hanging in the balance. But if the invitation arrives on the mat, the Taoiseach must go.

Of course, there is an argument that leaders become out of touch if they are treated differently to ordinary people. It is one that sometimes has merits; though it is rarely applicable in Ireland, whose political leaders remain more accessible to people than anywhere in Europe.

It is a peculiarity of the Irish discourse that the Taoiseach should be responsible for everything and yet not be an essential worker. It’s time for everyone to grow up. The Taoiseach should get the jab and do the job. Faith and begorrah, that includes going to Washington.

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