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Phil Hogan says Kildare visits did not breach Covid-19 restrictions

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A timeline outlining European Commissioner Phil Hogan’s movements during a recent trip to Ireland has been published as he attempts to fend off calls to resign over his attendance at an Oireachtas Golf Society dinner.

He told the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen that he did not breach the terms of the lockdown in Kildare because his travel in and out of the country was covered by the “reasonable excuse” provision of the public health regulations.

However, it appears Mr Hogan may not have complied with advice which says people arriving in the State to quarantine for 14 days even if they have tested negative for Covid-19.

“To my best understanding, my justification for entering County Kildare to obtain essential working documents or to get my belongings for the purpose of returning home to Brussels constitutes ‘a reasonable excuse’ under the regulations,” he says in a memorandum concerning his movements and attendance at the golf dinner supplied to Dr von der Leyen’s office this afternoon.

“At all times during my brief presence in Kildare over the period, I followed public health guidance.

“When in Kildare, I was either moving through the county or momentarily there with a reasonable excuse and consequently I was not in breach of the Covid-19 restrictions imposed.

“To the best of my knowledge and ability I believe that I complied with public health regulations in Ireland during my visit.”

Mr Hogan has been under pressure since he attended a meal at a hotel in Clifden, Co Galway last week, at which more than 80 people gathered in apparent breach of public health guidelines. The timelines states that he played golf on three occasions between August 13th and August 19th.

Quarantine

Regarding his observance of the quarantine requirements, Mr Hogan said that he had tested negative for Covid-19 while in hospital for a medical procedure and therefore was not “under any subsequent legal requirement to self-isolate or quarantine”.

When contacted by the Irish Times on Tuesday, the HSE Live Coronavirus information line said that incoming travellers must self-isolate for 14 days regardless of any negative test result as the disease could still be incubating at the time the test is taken.

“A test is only a point in time,” the adviser explained. “So I’m afraid the 14 day (quarantine period) still stands regardless of test negative or not.”

The commissioner cited a section of the ‘Testing for Covid-19’ page from the Citizens Information website in his dossier, which applies to ordinary residents in the State. This page contains advice for those who suspect they have Covid-19 and explains the procedure for getting a test.

It advises anyone with symptoms to isolate for 14 days. “If you have tested negative for Covid-19, you will receive your results by text message. You do not have to self-isolate any longer”.

However, the advice for incoming travellers from the Citizens Information web page on ‘Returning to Ireland and Covid-19’ says incoming travellers should “only stop self-isolating after 14 days have passed and you have had no symptoms.”

By travelling to Adare in Limerick to play golf on August 13th, Mr Hogan would appear to have breached this advice.

Tightened restrictions

Mr Hogan also says that the Oireachtas golf dinner was not covered by the tightened restrictions – reducing the numbers permissible at an indoor event to 15 – announced on August 18th because the statutory instrument giving effect to the change was not made available until after the dinner on August 19th.

“In reality this means that the dinner did not come within the remit of the new rules agreed on 18 August,” he says.

He says he was “assured by the organisers and the hotel that it was being held in full compliance with all relevant Covid-19 rules”.

“I had no reason to question or doubt that assurance, particularly in circumstances where an Irish Government Minister was attending and speaking at the event. Again I now recognize that the event should not have proceeded and I should not have attended,” he says.

Mr Hogan’s response indicates that he will attempt to tough it out in the face of calls in Ireland to resign. His account of the matters is now being considered by the office of Dr von der Leyen.

The timeline also states that Mr Hogan played golf in Co Limerick on August 13th. He said he collected documents from his Co Kildare apartment on August 17th ahead of going to Clifden for the golf gathering. It says he played golf the day before the dinner and on the day of the gathering itself.

The Government and the European Commission have suggested that Mr Hogan should take questions in public to account for his actions, but he has yet to do so.

The dossier submitted by Mr Hogan included details on the local coronavirus restrictions in different counties, advice from the Irish Hotels Federation, and a map of Ireland.

The Government is awaiting the judgment of Dr von der Leyen on the dossier supplied by Mr Hogan to her office. Sources said there is particular focus on whether Mr Hogan violated the terms of the local lockdown in Kildare.

Proven incorrect

Initial statements provided by his spokesman claiming Mr Hogan travelled “directly” from Co Kilkenny to the event in Co Galway have since proven to be incorrect. Mr Hogan’s team has said that he returned to Co Kildare, where local lockdown measures are in place, on his way to the golf event to collect items from his residence at the K-Club. He was stopped by gardaí in the county for using his mobile phone while driving.

Dr von der Leyen then requested further details and clarification from the commissioner because “she wishes to be informed in detail about the facts, but she also wishes to understand the circumstances, she wishes simply to have the complete picture.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan discussed the controvery surrounding Mr Hogan and the golfing society dinner on Tuesday morning. Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien has called for Mr Hogan to resign, while Mr Martin and Mr Varadkar asked him to consider his position.

European Commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant said it was “premature” to discuss any potential sanctions on the commissioner and whether Dr von der Leyen could ask him to resign.

‘Zero comment’

The owner of the hotel that hosted the controversial dinner, to mark the golfing society’s 50th anniversary, has said he will be making “zero comment” on the debacle.

Galway businessman John Sweeney, who owns the Station House Hotel, said he was “saying absolutely nothing” in response to the political storm that has erupted over the event.

“At the appropriate time the hotel will have something to say,” he told The Irish Times.

Mr Sweeney is a well-known Galway businessman and hotelier, and he was part of a consortium that previously acquired Dublin’s five-star Shelbourne Hotel in 2004. However, his business interests were severely hit during the economic crash.

His name was listed on the seating plan for the dinner, and other guests included Fianna Fáil TD Dara Calleary, who resigned as minister for agriculture over the controversy; Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe; and a host of former and sitting Oireachtas members – predominantly from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

The Supreme Court has asked former chief justice Susan Denham to review whether Mr Justice Woulfe should have attended the dinner.

The three-course dinner rounded off two days of golf at Connemara Golf Club in Ballyconneely. There had been a divider in place splitting the function room, and the divider was pulled back during a series of speeches at the event.

Previous limits allowing up to 50 people to attend indoor gatherings had been reduced to just six people as part of measures announced by the Government in response to a rise in Covid-19 cases the day before the dinner.

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