Confusion over what measures will apply in Dublin, apparent contradictions between Ministers, and the sudden announcement in the Dáil that members of the Cabinet were “self-isolating” overshadowed Tuesday’s publication of the Government’s plan for managing the pandemic for the next six months.
The plan, launched at Dublin Castle, was immediately criticised by Opposition parties for being unclear when the Government revealed that, although there would be a framework incorporating five levels of restrictions depending on the rate of spread of coronavirus, Dublin was judged to be currently between two levels.
While the country is currently designated at level two, Dublin is put at level two but with extra restrictions which came into operation on Tuesday night.
There was confusion about what the restrictions actually entail. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said residents in Dublin “absolutely can” travel outside the county.
But Taoiseach Micheál Martin later clarified that the advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) was that while people were being encouraged not to travel outside Dublin, there was no regulation attached to it.
“I am encouraging people not to travel, if at all possible,” Mr Martin told RTÉ.
The Department of Health directed queries on the issue to the level two details from the Covid-19 plan which say that there are “no restrictions” on domestic travel.
Further restrictions specific to Dublin are likely to be on the agenda when NPHET meets on Thursday.
A further tightening of the rule on mixing between households, and on travel outside the county, are expected to be discussed.
NPHET’s recommendation last week for a tightening of the rules on household visits, and for “wet” pubs to stay closed, was included in the framework plan launched on Tuesday, but the situation has worsened considerably since then.
Officials regard the situation in the country as precarious, given the upward trajectory of cases and the high levels of community transmission.
The urgency of the situation was underscored yesterday, when a further 357 cases of Covid-19 were notified, 218 of them in Dublin, the highest daily figure since mid-May. Three more deaths were also reported.
The incidence of the virus in the worst-affected parts of Dublin is now above the “red zone” threshold of 120 cases per 100,000 population used in the health service to denote the highest level of alert.
As the Government laboured to explain the new plan on Tuesday evening, Leinster House and Government Buildings were thrown into consternation with the news that Mr Donnelly had become unwell and was being tested for Covid-19. As a result, people who had been in contact with him – including members of the Cabinet – were advised to limit their contacts.
Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl announced the news to the Dáil, adjourning the House immediately, saying that Ministers were “self-isolating”, though a number of Ministers had not been informed at that point.
It later emerged that Ministers had been advised to limit their contacts, a less restrictive position. Although the Ceann Comhairle had adjourned the Dáil until next week, Mr Martin later wrote to Mr Ó Fearghaíl asking him to recall the Dáil on Tuesday night. Opposition TDs were fiercely critical of the sudden adjournment, with Sinn Féin whip Pádraig Mac Lochlainn describing the events as “an incredible shambles”.
Late on Tuesday night, the Department of Health confirmed that Mr Donnelly’s test had come back negative.
Earlier, Mr Martin said the Government’s medium-term Living with Covid-19 plan sets out “how we will live and how we will work with the virus”.
While Mr Martin warned about possible further restrictions in Dublin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said pubs in the rest of the country will reopen as planned on September 21st and that 200 people will be allowed to attend events in large, outdoor stadia, with the possibility of more attending events in a stadium such as Croke Park.
But Mr Varadkar also said the virus incidence has increased tenfold in Dublin in the past month and, unless there are preventative measures, there will be “a second wave of hospital admissions, ICU admissions and possible deaths”.