Government TD apologises for Attorney General's intervention on Covid rules 

Government TD apologises for Attorney General's intervention on Covid rules 

Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan at Leinster House on Kildare Street, Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

A Government TD has apologised over the intervention of the Attorney General in the Katherine Zappone controversy, calling it "incredibly unhelpful".

The Green Party's Neasa Hourigan said a Government statement sent on Wednesday in which the AG advised that coronavirus regulations "provide for organised outdoor events and gatherings up to 200 people" had sent out the wrong message.

Ms Hourigan said the AG was "technically correct", but it was not in the spirit of the public health advice and had sent out the message "that it's OK for 200 people to get together in a field and have a party".

The intervention came on a day of controversy for Government, after it emerged Tanaiste Leo Varadkar attended a private outdoor function of 50 people at the luxury Merrion Hotel, which was hosted by former minster Ms Zappone.

The event was held six days before Ms Zappone was appointed UN special envoy on freedom of opinion and expression, a role she has now declined following a week-long storm of controversy.

Ms Hourigan said: "I'm very sorry for the last week, I think it has been a bit of a mess.

"I have to say the thing I'm sorriest about is the intervention of the Attorney General yesterday. I think that was incredibly unhelpful.

"I think the message that has gone out now is that it's OK for 200 people to get together in a field and have a party."

She told Newstalk: "There is a difference between the law and guidelines. And I think the only way we've managed to do things over the last 18 months is through consent, and through the cooperation of people.

"I think that the intervention last night implies a message that it's OK now, we can all get together. The reality is that we're at 1,300 cases and it's the wrong message to send out."

Fáilte Ireland, which is responsible for issuing Covid-19 guidelines to the hospitality sector, will meet with Government officials on Thursday to update the public health guidelines and provide clarity on the operation of outdoor events.

Ms Hourigan said the Government must provide clarity "on what the what the public health guidance actually is, not what we can get away with under the law".

The confusion seems to have arisen around discrepancies in the legislation put in place by Government, and guidelines issued to the sector by Failte Ireland, which were updated on July 23, two days after the event at the Merrion Hotel.

"I was aware actually at the time that the guidelines did not exactly align with the law as it stands, but that the guidelines were more constrained to encourage people to do the right thing, particularly in light of the Delta variant," Ms Hourigan said.

On Wednesday, Mr Varadkar said he was "confident" that coronavirus regulations had not been breached at the event, adding that the matter had been checked with the Attorney General.

He said "further updates will be made to the guidelines to ensure that people have clarity about how future organised outdoor events may operate".

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane alleged that the Government's response was an attempt to "retrospectively interpret the guidelines to get to Tanaiste off the hook".

He said the Government had "seriously undermined the credibility of their own public health advice."

Mr Cullinane told RTÉ's Morning Ireland: "The very fact that we're now seeing Failte Ireland having to now revise the guidelines show that this is very confusing and very chaotic.

"I don't believe that anybody in Government can seriously suggest that they felt that from the June bank holiday weekend onwards, that people could have an organised social event outdoors in a hotel or restaurant or bar for up to 200 people."

The CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland has said the industry was not aware that up to 200 people could attend outdoor events, and said the sector was owed an apology.

Adrian Cummins told Newstalk: "There's a lot of businesses that have turned away a lot of business over the last number of weeks because they did not know, through the Failte Ireland guidelines, that they could have up to 200 people at an outdoor event.

"I think we need to move forward, I think Failte Ireland needs to correct the guidelines this morning, and I think somebody needs to say sorry to our industry that has been economically flattened since last March."

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