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Irish government’s authority frays amid fears of new Covid wave | Ireland


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When Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, gave his latest Covid-19 address earlier this week there was none of the poetry or literary allusions that have peppered previous speeches.

Sensing the nation was fed up and in no mood for high-brow quotes, Martin appealed for patience on what he termed the final stretch of a terrible journey. “A lot has been asked of everyone … it has been, and continues to be, exceptionally difficult.”

That was Tuesday. By Friday, the journey had become even more fraught politically. Government U-turns and infighting combined with hospital vaccine blunders to cast a sense of disarray over Ireland’s pandemic response.

It came at a fragile moment. Health officials have warned that the next few weeks will determine whether Ireland endures a fourth wave of infection or controls numbers until widespread vaccinations have been administered by June.

In January, Ireland briefly had the world’s highest infection rate until a severe lockdown forced it down to one of Europe’s lowest. However, community transmission has plateaued at a level that could easily lead to another explosion, prompting continued restrictions.

The government’s authority started to fray within hours of Martin’s speech.

Teacher and police unions cried betrayal over a rejigged vaccine plan that will prioritise people according to age, not profession. The government said it reflected updated scientific advice and would speed up vaccinations, but the unions said it broke a promise to put their members near the head of the queue.

A meeting with ministers and health officials on Thursday did not mollify the unions. “Teachers and other school staff are frontline workers and with high levels of contacts each day and often working in poorly ventilated classrooms of up to 30 students,” said a representative of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland.

The finance minister, Paschal Donohoe, told RTE that parents could buy children’s shoes only online, otherwise all retailers would seek exemptions. Hours later, the taoiseach said shoe shops could in fact sell children’s shoes by appointment.

People walk past a mural by the Irish artist Emmalene Blake in Dublin’s city centre.
People walk past a mural by the Irish artist Emmalene Blake in Dublin’s city centre. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

A more serious divergence appeared over quarantine. Travellers from 32 countries deemed high risk face a mandatory 12-day hotel quarantine. The health minister, Stephen Donnelly, sought to extend that to another 43 countries, including France, Germany and Italy.

The attorney general warned this would violate EU freedom of movement rules and the foreign minister, Simon Coveney, cited other objections in a reportedly “frosty” meeting with Donnelly. The result was a fudge in which 26 countries – none from the EU – will be added to the quarantine list, leaving questions about whether Ireland was leaving the door ajar to new Covid variants. The UK is not on its quarantine list.

Disclosures about vaccination glitches and rule-breaking have further soured the mood.

A consultant at Coombe hospital in Dublin brought some vaccine home and administered it to two family members, an independent review found. The Health Service Executive’s online portal for arranging vaccines proved vulnerable to cheating by people posing as healthcare workers.

Ireland’s vaccination level is slightly above Europe’s average, and well above average for those aged over 80. The government hopes a dramatic increase in supply in April, May and June will permit significant loosening of restrictions.

“This summer our businesses and our public services will safely reopen,” said Martin. “We will finally be meeting and enjoying the company of friends and family once again. We will be able to travel within and enjoy our beautiful country again.”

That depends on vaccine supply and public adherence to restrictions, two factors beyond the government’s control.

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