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Crucial meeting between senior health officials and ministers on Covid-19 restrictions held

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The Taoiseach met privately with the State’s two most senior health officials before a crucial meeting of coalition leaders on Covid-19 restrictions today.

Senior Government figures met this evening to consider the recommendation from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) after a significant increase in Covid-19 infection levels.

Nphet has recommended that the country be moved to Level 5 of the State’s Living with Covid plan for a period of six weeks after a significant increase in Covid-19 infection levels.

Micheál Martin consulted with the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Ronan Glynn, in advance of the wider meeting of political leaders.

Dr Holohan and Prof Philip Nolan, the chair of the Irish epidemiological modelling group, gave a presentation on their concerns over the rapid growth of Covid-19 to political leaders in advance of this evening’s meeting. It involved the Taoiseach, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Green Party Leader Eamon Ryan, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, and Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath.

It is understood that the chief executive of the Health Service Executive (HSE), Paul Reid, also briefed the political leaders in advance of their meeting.

In a tweet this morning, Mr Reid said he had been in contact with hospital managers and consultants, and the feedback he received indicated they were “coping but under pressure”, “trying to protect non Covid care”, and that there was a concern about staff picking up the infection in communities “at a key time that we need them”.

Mr Reid added: “The public actions are key now to keep all services going.”

The Nphet representatives have now left Government Buildings.

Multiple political sources have expressed the view that a decision is unlikely to be made this evening. Several Cabinet sources said they do not expect a Cabinet meeting to be called tonight. A briefing for Fine Gael Cabinet ministers on the content of today’s meeting, which had been scheduled for 7pm, has been rescheduled for 11am tomorrow.

Some Ministers privately believe that the Government is likely to approve significant nationwide restrictions in the coming days, which will fall somewhere between Level 4 and Level 5.

It is expected that there will be resistance at Cabinet to particular aspects of Nphet’s recommendation, including its six-week duration, and the mandatory closure of many sectors of the economy in Level 5. Ministers also consider that the stipulation in Level 5 that people stay within five kilometres of their home is not necessary.

Spoke to our hospital managers & consultants now. Feedback, 1.Coping but under pressure. 2.Trying to protect non Covid care. 3.Concern re staff getting virus in communities at a key time that we need them. The public actions are key now to keep all services going. @HSELive

— Paul Reid (@paulreiddublin)
October 17, 2020

Ministerial and public health sources have also expressed frustration with the five-level approach to managing the State, which is seen by many as too rigid and not flexible enough to adapt to an inherently dynamic threat posed by the virus.

The developments come as senior backbench TDs in Government parties raised concerns over the prospect of moving to Level 5. Barry Cowen, the Offaly TD and former minister for agriculture, tweeted on Friday that the State should “retain Level 3, work with it, implement it, adhere to it”.

He added: “Moving to 4 or 5 is running and hiding from Covid.”

Senior Cabinet figures have privately indicated deep concern about moving to Level 5, with the impact on the economy foremost in their minds. There are also concerns that recently announced restrictions have not had a chance to bed in, and that there could be conflict with teachers unions if schools were to remain open.

James Lawless, the Fianna Fáil TD for Kildare North, told The Irish Times on Saturday that if Level 5 is introduced, oversight of the schools system by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) should be increased by making Covid-19 a notifiable disease. Once a case of a notifiable disease is made to the HSA, an inspection follows, he said.

“Whilst transmission among pupils remains low, schools are also a workplace and the relevant legislation should be amended to make Covid-19 a notifiable event. We have tens of thousand of teachers on the front line and they deserve same protections as other sectors,” Mr Lawless said.

While the overall mood of the Cabinet is against a move to Level 5, some sources on Friday indicated that an increase in restrictions may meet less resistance at the Cabinet table due to the levels of virus circulating.

Government TDs on Saturday expressed mixed views on the prospect of moving to Level 5. One Fine Gael TD said the Government is “damned if we do and damned if we don’t, the virus is getting out of hand, if the trend continues there may be no other option”.

A Fianna Fáil TD said that measures introduced during the week should be given a chance bed in, and that the impact of Level 3 restrictions introduced in recent weeks would only become apparent this weekend. The TD said the Government should wait, but review the situation in the middle of next week.

Marc MacSharry, the Fianna Fáil TD for Sligo-Leitrim, is understood to have sent a research paper he authored to the Taoiseach and Mr Donnelly during the week.

The research paper, which Mr MacSharry wrote based on publicly available data, advocates for a return to Level 2 restrictions with an emphasis on certain “golden rules” advocated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), including avoiding crowded indoor settings, social distancing and mask wearing.

It raises concerns over the impact on the hospitality sector in particular, and outlines arguments around the mortality of the virus being largely confined to older cohorts and those with underlying conditions. The paper is intended to contribute to the debate on restrictions, rather than polarise it, a source said.

Meanwhile, Colm Burke, the Fine Gael TD for Cork North Central, said he was concerned about the impact on small businesses. “There are certain businesses that will not reopen again if we go into a level five,” he said. “It’s fine if your company has surplus funds in it, but if you’ve a company that doesn’t have surplus funds that’s the problem.”

Mr Burke added that “we probably are going to have to seriously consider going to a Level 4”.

Another former minister, Michael Ring, described the proposed shift as a “cruel, cruel” move. It is cruel to the elderly, cruel to the young, cruel to people with mental illness and cruel to people who are waiting for all sorts of other operations,” said the veteran Mayo TD.

“Closing down has affected a lot of businesses, a lot of jobs. People are depressed. They are down and they are depressed.

“The Government is handling this badly now. We have to make political decisions as well as medical decisions,” he contended.

“My recommendation is we should go back again to Level 2 where at least we have a bit of normality.”

Jim O’Callaghan, Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin Bay South, also questioned the wisdom of the move on Friday.

He said that going to Level 5 is not “living with Covid” and urged that Government “wake up” to the impact of the measures.

“It is, in effect, a lockdown,” he said. “In deciding what level to move to we need to consider the repercussions of moving to Level 5. It will have a very negative impact on the lives of young people and mental health.”

“At some stage we have to wake up to the damage that we are inflicting on the lives of young people. Their education, employment, pastimes, entertainment and relationships have all been stopped or severely damaged by the restrictions, and they will be damaged even more by moving to level 5.”

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