The Government moved the entire country to Level 3 Covid-19 restrictions this week, against the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), which recommended Level 5 measures. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the recommendation for the more stringent restrictions came out of the blue.
Here, we take a look at the timeline of meetings, phonecalls and other key events in the days before and after the Government’s elevation of the Covid-19 measures.
Saturday October 3rd
10 Deaths; 613 new cases.
The Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan has returned to work two days early to review the situation. He contacts Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to convey his concern about the deteriorating situation in relation to Covid-19. He tells him that he has arranged for the Nphet to hold an impromptu meeting the following day.
Sunday October 4th
Zero deaths; 364 new cases.
Dr Holohan again contacts Mr Donnelly by phone, to reinforce his concerns about the latest data on the pandemic and his view that tougher measures are required. At this stage no reference is made about any possibility of advice to elevate the alert level to Level 5. Mr Donnelly conveys the contents of the call to Taoiseach Micheál Martin. But was he given any inkling by Dr Holohan that such a dramatic two-step elevation was going to be recommended?
In the early afternoon Nphet begins a long meeting where it discusses the data. A letter sent by Dr Holohan to Mr Donnelly on behalf of Nphet after the meeting sets out the context of its concern.
Under current trends, it warns, the daily number of new cases could increase to between 1,600 to 2,300 by November 7th. All the data is on a steep upward curve. The 14 day average of cases per 100,000 people has leaped from 84 to 108, hospitalisations are increasing, and the volume of new cases has jumped by 50 per cent in one week to October 3rd (compared to a 6 per cent rise the previous week).
But the clinching line is this: “It is therefore recommended that the Government apply Level 5 measures throughout the country from midnight Monday October 5 for a period of four weeks.”
Before the Government receives the letter, Dr Holohan again rings Mr Donnelly and tells him that Nphet is recommending that nationwide move to Level 5. Mr Donnelly immediately calls the Taoiseach and both the senior staff of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan are contacted.
But Mr Donnelly does not make those contacts with Dr Holohan public.
Within a few hours of the meeting, the news breaks of this dramatic turn of events.
The reaction from senior government levels is one of shock and anger. Ministers demand an explanation from Nphet about the “blanket news” and also complain the expert body had side-stepped the protocol of the new alert plan. The move should have been communicated by the Taoiseach, says one source, following a full Cabinet meeting.
Varadkar admits later in the week he was “very unhappy” at the development. So too, reportedly, was Martin Fraser, the Secretary General of Government, who also chairs the Covid-19 oversight committee.
British prime minister Boris Johnson contacts the Taoiseach to express concern about the State going into Level 5, a situation that would create a big disparity with the North, where the latest outbreak is worse. The Taoiseach responds by saying no decision had been made but that the North needed more “financial firepower” to curb the spread of the virus there.
Monday October 5th
Zero deaths; 518 new cases.
On Monday morning, Dr Holohan – accompanied by his deputy Dr Ronan Glynn and Dr Philip Nolan – goes to Government Buildings to meet with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Eamon Ryan. It is a long and a tense meeting. Varadkar in particular questions the three doctors on the rationale behind the radical advice and asks them what contingencies were there if it didn’t work.
It is here that the notion of a “circuit break” – a short, sharp shock – comes up. The politicians argue that it has not been tried anywhere else in Europe, that the lockdown in Ireland would be far more severe than in any other EU country although some countries had far worse situations. They ask the doctors if they have considered the ramifications for an estimated 400,000 people who would lose their jobs.
Then in an equally tense meeting, the oversight committee chaired by Fraser meets to consider the letter from Dr Holohan and make its own recommendations to Government. Like the Ministers before, the committee rejects the advice and instead recommends a nationwide Level 3 status. This is a serious elevation but falls far short of what had been recommended by Nphet.
A full Cabinet meeting follows at 5pm.
According to one Minister, Mr Martin and Martin Fraser – who is the Government’s top official who sits at Cabinet – were “visibly angry” at the meeting.
Some Ministers warned that the situation was deteriorating and that a full Level 5 lockdown might be necessary soon, the vast majority were swayed by the arguments of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste that Level 5 would have very serious negative consequences for society, for the economy, and for mental health.
It is at this meeting that Ministers decide they need to ensure Level 3 is being enforced. A plan is devised for a high visibility Garda operation involving nationwide checkpoints.
The meeting concludes just before 8pm. It is then announced that Micheál Martin would read a statement that would be carried live on RTÉ’s 9pm news. In the short statement he explains why the Government had rejected the advice but makes no overt criticism of Nphet.
That criticism comes less than an hour later. But not at Government Buildings. There, three senior ministers – Eamon Ryan, Stephen Donnelly and Paschal Donohoe – hold a press conference to explain what had happened.
At the same time, however, Mr Varadkar is in the RTÉ studios on the Claire Byrne Live show. With minimum prompting he lets fly at Dr Holohan and Nphet with an acidic put-down of its recommendation. He says the advice had come out of the blue and had not been thought through. He also makes the pointed criticism that no member of Nphet would face losing their job on Tuesday morning as a result of Level 5. It is a demolition of the advice and a very direct excoriation of Dr Holohan.
That evening, Mr Martin also contacts Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill to explain the Government decision. He agrees with them that the North needs to get more funding from London to help vulnerable businesses and entities which might have to close if restrictions are increased there.
Tuesday October 6th
One death; 432 new cases.
The Government begins preparations to put the entire State in lockdown. Much of the discussion during the day is on Mr Varadkar’s extraordinary attack. Opposition politicians criticise it. Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin describes it as “gratuitous” while Duncan Smith of Labour says that Mr Varadkar had gone into the tackle with both feet”.
On the larger question of what level of restrictions was appropriate, most parties agree with the Government’s assessment, although Solidarity-People Before Profit argue for Level 5.
In a prelude of what’s to come, the GAA has since the previous day banned all club games, following a series of embarrassing events involving post-match celebrations by club teams throughout the country.
At a parliamentary party meeting of Fine Gael that evening, Mr Varadkar warns his TDs and Senators that just because the Government had rejected Level 3 it does not mean that a “circuit breaker” would not be necessary if the numbers didn’t stabilise.
Mr Varadkar also rings Dr Holohan that night to discuss his harsh criticism of him. He says he did not apologise but both had a long discussion which seemingly cleared the air. “We are on the same team,” says Mr Varadkar afterwards, adding that he was “really unhappy about what happened on Sunday night and the anxiety and fear it caused to hundreds of thousands of people.”
Wednesday October 7th
Five deaths; 611 new cases.
The national move to Level 3 commences with An Garda Síochána’s Operation Fanacht. Checkpoints are set up all over the State and lead to huge tailbacks on motorways, some stretching back 8 kilometres.
While it leads to huge frustration from motorists and professional drivers, the feedback the Government gets suggests a 25 per cent reduction in traffic volumes.
At the launch of the Climate Change Bill, Mr Martin says how important it was for Level 3 to work as Level 4 or 5 would have profound negative implications for society.
He also indicates that the Government might consider fines for people who don’t comply with social distancing rules such as wearing masks indoors.
At around the same time, at the daily Nphet meeting, Dr Holohan drops a new bombshell. He disclosed his contacts with Mr Donnelly on Saturday, and before and after the Nphet meeting on Sunday.
It dilutes the Tánaiste’s comments on Monday that the information had come “out of the blue”.
Dr Holohan explains his contacts with Mr Donnelly: “We just discussed my concerns, the concerns I shared with some of the conversations I had had with a range of members of Nphet over the course of the preceding 24 hours.”
Dr Holohan says he did not specifically say he wanted to increase to Level 5 but added he “was very clear about the level of concern that I would have had”.
Mr Donnelly later confirms that Dr Holohan had spoken to him about his concerns on Sunday and the need to increase the level of restrictions.
A spokeswoman says: “After the Nphet meeting, the Minister was informed for the first time that it had recommended a move to Level 5.”
Thursday October 8th
Following Dr Holohan’s disclosure, Opposition politicians on Thursday morning quickly hone in on the confusion surrounding who knew what and when. They call for Mr Donnelly to make a full statement to the Dáil.
The political consequences are these: If the Government was aware at the time that Nphet was meeting that it was considering that two-step leap to Level 5, it would seriously undermine its whole approach from Sunday through to its decision on Monday evening and would also damage its credibility.