Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he expects Ireland will have to continue living with the Covid-19 virus until at least the end of 2021 but that he hopes to see a vaccine by the middle of next year.
Mr Martin said he was hopeful that frontline healthcare workers and society’s most vulnerable citizens could be vaccinated in the first half of 2021 but that he believed the pandemic would last for at least another year.
He noted that while Dr Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) health emergencies programme, was optimistic that a vaccine could be found by April, it would take a long time to roll it out to the whole population. On a more optimistic note, Mr Martin said he was heartened by Irish research into therapeutics which was “improving all the time”.
“What I’d say to people is stick with this because we will get through it. Science and research will get on top of this virus just as in the past they’ve got on top of other viruses, but we need to manage ourselves, protect ourselves, protect the elderly and the most vulnerable.”
Mr Martin defended the Government’s decision to introduce level 3 restrictions in the capital on RTÉ’s Today with Brendan O’Connor show, saying numbers had stabilised in Laois, Kildare and Offaly when similar restrictions were introduced. However, he acknowledged that the hospitality, tourism and aviation sectors were “taking a terrible hit”.
Mr Martin said it was clear from tax returns that the virus was having a stronger impact on lower income workers and that more needed to be done to support people out of work. The Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) will be kept “constantly under review” while the Government will also examine how to support certain sectors, most notably hospitality and the arts.
With a deficit of €24 billion expected by the end of the year, the Government needs to look at “alternative employment streams” to support the sectors most affected by restrictions, he said.
“We need to be more imaginative around the social protection area in terms of what many call the gig economy,” he said, adding that many people working in the cultural sector were afraid to come off the PUP for a few events as they would lose sustainable income. Measures need to be taken to ensure these people can have “a floor income”, he said.
“We should look at giving artists work in schools – children will benefit, the arts and culture benefits and we keep artists working and keep an income stream going.”
The Taoiseach strongly underlined that the latest restrictions introduced in the capital were “not a lockdown, it’s nowhere near the lockdown we had before. There’s no 5km, no 20km, people can work in retail, manufacturing, construction and education.”
Responding to an article in The Irish Times that members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) wanted to see Dublin move to level 4 restrictions, Mr Martin said this information was “not communicated to us, either verbally or in the letter NPHET sent to government”. However, he did not deny claims that NPHET had discussed moving the rest of the country to level 3 restrictions. He said the objective was to “get Dublin back to level 2” and to focus on the guidance issued on Friday.
Asked why the Government had decided to allow so-called “wet pubs” outside the capital to re-open, Mr Martin said “publicans needed a chance” but that health and government officials were keeping a sharp eye on virus numbers around the country. He said the number of pubs offering food options had started bringing the decision around keeping wet pubs closed “into disrepute” when rural pubs in places with low incidences of the virus had remained closed for so long.
Commenting on the young woman who threw a smoothie on Leo Varadkar on Friday, the Taoiseach said he believed the Tánaiste had dealt with the incident well and that his comments in response to what happened were “witty and humorous”.
However, he acknowledged he was worried about a rise in vitriol against politicians which could affect their safety when in public. “The great thing about Irish politics is our accessibility… we can walk the streets and go into parks and I would hate to think that an event like this could inhibit this.
“That I think is the strength of Irish politics. Whether you agree or disagree with politicians, the one thing we have is the connection with people walking the streets, engaging, having a chat, no matter what position you hold. That’s a very great strength and I’d hate to see that undermined.”
On Leo Varadkar’s role as Tánaiste in the coalition government, Mr Martin said he did not feel like his deputy was preempting announcements to the public. “Our relationship is very good and we get on on a personal level. And with Eamon Ryan, the three of us.”
The Taoiseach criticised Sinn Féin for “undermining” steps taken around testing and tracing, saying “huge efforts” had been made to improve the system in a global context where there was huge pressure on acquiring testing kits.
“I don’t think we can be political about Covid-19, I think it transcends politics,” he said. “The ultimate point is if the virus takes hold, there will be a lot more than just hospitality closing down and we don’t want to go back there.”
“When you’re in the middle of a global pandemic to a certain extent we have to put politics to one side and get on with the job. My experience from meeting people on the ground is they want politicians to get on with the job. They don’t like the bickering and they don’t like the partisan engagement. We all do it but the public don’t want that.
“They want decisions made in their best interest to keep their children at school, to keep themselves safe, to keep their elderly protected.”