Tensions between the Government and its public health advisers have re-emerged as new Covid-19 restrictions were unveiled on Friday evening.
The Government has announced strict new limits on the hospitality sector and home visits as it moved to push down Covid infection rates, after “stark” warnings from officials that the new Omicron variant could add to pressure on the health service.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) had warned while it was “impossible to quantify the level of risk” from Omicron, this may become clear only “when it may be too late to take mitigating measures”.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced a range of restrictions on hospitality and associated financial supports, saying he shared the “frustration” of the public.
It followed a hastily-arranged meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid, attended by senior officials from Nphet on Friday to discuss its advice, according to The Irish Times.
During the meeting, which one source described as “very tense”, a number of Ministers are understood to have expressed frustrations over Nphet’s media strategy.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was said to have been “very critical” of the public health team, saying he felt their media appearances were making it difficult to communicate about the pandemic.
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe complained he was hearing of restrictions piecemeal while dealing with Government business in the Dáil.
Minister for Arts Catherine Martin spoke of the impact of restrictions on sectors concerned, while Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is also understood to have had “firm words” for Nphet.
The issue of communications was also raised at a subsequent Cabinet meeting, where Ministers took a formal decision that all communications on Covid were now to be managed by and done through the Government Information Service, which would apply to civil servants and members of advisory bodies.
Several well-placed sources said the intervention was seen as a direct response to disquiet among some senior Coalition figures over Nphet’s media strategy.
Announcing the restrictions on Friday, the Taoiseach said advice from chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan was “exceptionally clear” that the risk of proceeding without further restrictions was “just too high”.
In a letter to the Government, Nphet said that the new variant could drive up cases during increased social activity over the Christmas period.
New Nphet modelling estimated the Omicron variant could cause 6,000 to 15,000 cases a day in January, depending on its severity and if it becomes dominant.
Under the new restrictions, nightclubs will close from Tuesday until at least January 9th.
Indoor hospitality will be limited to parties of six adults with table service only, and indoor cultural, entertainment and sporting events will be limited to half a venue’s capacity.
Advice has been issued that households should not host more than three other households in their home, while the use of the Covid cert is to be extended to gyms and hotel bars and restaurants.
Meanwhile, travellers with a Covid cert arriving into the State from Sunday onwards will have to produce proof of a professionally-administered antigen test that is negative for the virus, taken within 48 hours of arrival. A PCR test within 72 hours of arrival is required for unvaccinated flyers.