By James Ward, PA
Leo Varadkar has branded the introduction of new Covid-19 restrictions last week a “bitter disappointment” and warned they could extend beyond early January.
But he said the country is facing “a serious fourth wave” of the virus, and despite a highly successful vaccination rollout, “the picture of progress is mixed”.
Mr Varadkar raised concerns the new restrictions on hospitality, which he said were a “body blow” for the hospitality industry, could be extended beyond January 9th, the date flagged by Government when they were introduced on Friday.
Speaking in the Seanad on Tuesday, he said: “Despite a successful vaccination programme and what seemed like a gradual normalisation of society, the virus is very much still with us and we are now experiencing a serious fourth wave.
“The new restrictions announced on Friday were a bitter disappointment to all of us. They were a body blow in particular for sectors like hospitality, arts, events entertainment and leisure.”
Mr Varadkar said he was not convinced that the full picture concerning the Omicron variant would be clear by January 9th.
He added: “I think we need to operate on the basis that these restrictions will be in place at least until January 9th.
“And generally in our experience of the pandemic, when restrictions are imposed, they tend to be extended, not reversed sooner than the date designated.
“I think we need to bear that in mind.”
“You should always make decisions mindful of the fact that what might appear to be a temporary measure can be one that lasts for months and even years,” he added.
Mr Varadkar highlighted that the restrictions had been tightened at a time when the “epidemiological situation is improving, when numbers in hospital and ICU appear to have peaked and are falling and deaths are at a relatively low level, thankfully.
“We are out-performing the most optimistic models presented to us a few weeks ago.”
But he said they were introduced on “the basis of strong public health advice” and three concerns in particular – increased socialisation over Christmas, uncertainty over the Omicron variant and the return of the flu season, which did not emerge last year.
His comments come amid accusations from Opposition parties that the Government is sending “mixed messages” on Covid-19, after the Tánaiste branded the new restrictions “peculiar” at the press conference announcing their introduction.
Fianna Fáil Ministers Michael McGrath and Darragh O’Brien have defended the comments, insisting the reintroduction of restrictions was taken collectively by Cabinet.
Speaking earlier on Tuesday, Mr O’Brien said: “There was a Cabinet decision made by us all, as a collective, agreed by us all unanimously, and the right thing to do.
“I think in fairness, that has been acknowledged, that that is the case.
“The Cabinet and the Government are unanimous on our response to Covid, particularly as we move to a period where a lot of people are generally socialising more.
“We don’t want to have a situation whereby, when we’re in late December or January, we see another peak in cases because we haven’t asked people to taper their social contacts and to reduce that.”
Sinn Féin have criticised the Tanaiste for “mixed messaging”, with TD Mairead Farrell telling RTÉ it was “of benefit to no-one”.
“Having mixed messages now is not helpful to businesses or to those people who are going to work to try and earn a living,” she said.
But Mr Varadkar doubled down on his position in his appearance before the Seanad on Tuesday.
He said: “I do try to keep an open mind on these things and do critical thinking on Covid strategy.
“So anytime anybody comes to me and says that they want to impose new restrictions – whether its restrictions that will cause the business to close, people to lose their jobs or individuals or families to have their freedoms reduced – I’m always going to ask questions.
“And I’m always going to ask for evidence. I’m always going to ask if there are alternatives.
“While some people may be critical of me for doing that, I think it’s a good thing that we have people in Government, and it certainly isn’t just me, that we have people in Government who are going to ask those questions and look for evidence and ask for alternatives.
“And we’ll need to be convinced of the facts before we agree to imposing restrictions that affect people’s lives and businesses and jobs and freedoms.”