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Stephen Collins: The cliche Ireland has 'a third world' health service was never remotely true

Continuing national solidarity will be needed for economic recovery in wake of Covid-19

The broad political consensus in support of the measures to deal with the threat of Covid-19 has shown that our politicians are capable of putting the national interest first in a real emergency. Dealing with the financial fall-out from in the autumn is likely to be another matter.

The country will be able to recover quickly if there is a government in place that is capable of mobilising a national effort. The other side of the coin is that political instability could facilitate a descent into economic chaos as the various interest groups struggle for advantage.

Hopefully the sense of national solidarity that has developed in response to the shock of the Covid-19 epidemic will prompt a calm and rational approach to the problems it will inevitably leave in its wake. A return to politics as normal with Punch-and-Judy-style shouting matches in the Dáil rather than rational debate will be no help to anybody. One of the real heroes to emerge in the current crisis is Minister for Health Simon Harris.

It is ironic that having effectively lost the election Varadkar and Harris are now in charge of the response to the Covid-19 emergency

It is quite evident that not only that he is working night and day at his post but that he has a complete grasp of the issues involved. It is worth recalling that the reason we had an election in February was that Sinn Féin signalled its intention of putting down a motion of no confidence in Harris. The signs were that it would have been passed by the Dáil so Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called an election rather than having one forced on him.


It is ironic that having effectively lost the election Varadkar and Harris are now in charge of the response to the Covid-19 emergency and by general consensus are doing a fine job. They have been helped enormously by the calm and open approach of the country’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and the Government has had the good sense to implement his advice all the way along.

Something else that has been highlighted by the emergency is the quality of our health service and the commitment and bravery of the people who work in it. The cliche that Ireland has “a third world health service” has been widely accepted over the past decade but it was never remotely true, as anybody who ever had to use the health service of a developing country can attest.The denigration of the health service has been a constant of political debate for the past few decades. All of the political parties have engaged in it, aided and abetted by the various unions and interest groups in the health service itself usually in the pursuit of sectional interest.

The response of the Irish health service to the current emergency compares very favourably to the National Health Service in the UK and of course so does the response of our political leaders. Right from the start of the crisis Varadkar and Harris accepted the advice of their medical experts and acted in a clear and decisive manner to implement ever tougher restrictions as they moved from one stage to the next.

Contrast that with the way Boris Johnson initially trivialised the threat and then ziz-zagged in his approach. That created confusion among the British public and in the NHS in the initial stages of the pandemic. The result has been that to date the level of fatalities in the UK has been twice the Irish rate. One silver lining from Covid-19 might be a more rational debate in the future about the state of the Irish health service and what needs to be done to improve it within the annual budgetary constraints.

However, at this stage the chances of getting other parties involved appear remote

On the political front, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have in recent days started to move closer to agreement on a framework document which can form the basis of talks with other political parties on a programme for government.

However, at this stage the chances of getting other parties involved appear remote. All of the three potential coalition partners, the Greens, the Labour Party and the Social Democrats have been adamant that they do not wish to be involved. The Greens appear to be divided among themselves about what to do and and it is becoming clear that a number of their TDs feel closer to Sinn Féin than the traditional parties of government.

The Social Democrats have also clearly set their face against joining the proposed coalition so that leaves only the Labour Party, which will have a new leader this weekend. Cork East TD Seán Sherlock did not get a very warm response from colleagues to his suggestion that the party should consider going into government so it looks as if the new leader will have little option but to stay out.

That leaves a group of Independents as the only realistic option for involvement in coalition. That might not be a secure enough base for a government that will have to take some hard decisions in the autumn.

A second election is now a real possibility.