When Ireland’s taoiseach Micheál Martin delivered his last speech on Covid-19 earlier this week, there was none of the poetry or literary allusions that have peppered previous speeches.
Feeling that the nation was fed up and in no mood for high-level dating, Martin pleaded for patience in what he called the final leg 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 trip had become even more politically tense. Government reversals and infighting combined with vaccine errors in hospitals to create a sense of disorder about the response to the Irish pandemic.
It came at a fragile moment. Health officials have warned that the next few weeks will determine whether Ireland will endure a fourth wave of infection or monitor the numbers until widespread vaccines have been administered in June.
In January, Ireland briefly had the highest infection rate in the world until a severe lockdown forced it down to one of the lowest in Europe. However, community transmission has stalled to a level that could easily lead to another explosion, prompting continued restrictions.
The authority of the government began to weaken within hours of Martin’s speech.
The teachers and police unions wept betrayal over a modified vaccine plan that will prioritize people based on age, not profession. The government said it reflected up-to-date scientific advice and would speed up vaccines, but unions said it broke a promise to put its members near the head of the line.
A meeting with ministers and health officials on Thursday did not appease the unions. “Teachers and other school personnel are front-line workers with high levels of contact every day and often work in stuffy classrooms of up to 30 students,” said a representative from the Irish Secondary Teachers Association.
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe told RTE that parents can buy children’s shoes online only; otherwise, all retailers would seek exemptions. Hours later, the taoiseach said shoe stores could sell children’s shoes by appointment.
A more serious divergence appeared on the quarantine. Travelers from 32 high-risk countries face a mandatory 12-day hotel quarantine. Health Minister Stephen Donnelly tried to extend that to 43 other countries, including France, Germany and Italy.
The attorney general warned that this would violate EU freedom of movement rules and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney cited other objections in a supposedly “icy” meeting with Donnelly. The result was a hoax 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 for new variants of Covid. The UK is not on their quarantine list.
Revelations about vaccination failures and non-compliance with the rules have further soured the mood.
A consultant from Coombe Hospital in Dublin brought some vaccines home and administered them to two family members, an independent review found. Health Service Executive’s online portal for organizing vaccinations has proven vulnerable to cheating by people posing as healthcare workers.
Ireland’s vaccination level is slightly above the European average and well above the average for those over 80 years of age. The government expects a dramatic increase in supply in April, May and June to allow a significant relaxation of restrictions.
“This summer our businesses and our utilities will reopen safely,” Martin said. “We will finally get together and enjoy the company of friends and family once again. We will be able to travel within and enjoy our beautiful country again ”.
That depends on the supply of vaccines and public adherence to the restrictions, two factors beyond the government’s control.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism