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Keelings contacted Coveney directly as it set up flight for 189 Bulgarian fruit pickers

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Simon Coveney. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Simon Coveney. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Simon Coveney. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Tánaiste Simon Coveney was contacted directly by Keelings before the company flew in 189 seasonal workers from Bulgaria during the Covid-19 lockdown, the Irish Independent has confirmed.

The controversy over the seasonal workers flying into the country was described by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as a "debacle" yesterday.

The revelation of Mr Coveney's personal involvement in the saga comes as the Dáil heard demands for the company's site to be inspected.

Mr Varadkar launched a review of the rules around foreign workers following the outcry over the fruit producer's flight during the lockdown.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan expressed his discomfort about the flight saying it was "not consistent" with public health advice regarding travel. In a U-turn, Mr Varadkar subsequently said he "shares the discomfort expressed" by Dr Holohan.

The Government had previously appeared to defend the company saying seasonal workers were critical to the agricultural sector "in terms of harvesting, planting and tending functions".

However, Mr Coveney's role was not previously known.

The Tánaiste was contacted by Keelings, his spokesman said, and one of his advisers spoke to the company. Mr Coveney's spokesman said the only issue raised was a query on airports remaining open.

"Their query was specific to whether airports and ports in Ireland would remain open, and they have, as per Government statements," the spokesman said.

Mr Coveney's links to the Keelings family are well known.

Keelings chief executive Caroline Keeling is a member of the Export Trade Council at the Department of Foreign Affairs. She is also a member of the board of Bord Bia, chair of the Horticulture Board of Bord Bia and chair of Dublin Action Plan for Jobs Implementation Committee.

Her father, Joe Keeling, was appointed as chairman of Horse Racing Ireland by Mr Coveney when he was agriculture minister.

Mr Coveney described Mr Keeling as being "eminently well qualified for this appointment, given both his very successful business background in the agri-food sector and his interest in horse racing".

The Keelings issue was raised twice in the Dáil yesterday.

Independent TD Thomas Pringle said Keelings told the workers it was advised that 49 people could be quarantined at a time, but this was then reduced to 19 people. Mr Pringle asked the Taoiseach who was advising the company in Government.

Mr Varadkar said he didn't know who had advised Keelings.

"I think as far as that debacle is concerned, it was probably a case of there being many arms of government, and all arms of government not having spoken to each other. I think that's what went wrong there," he said.

Last night, a spokesperson for the company said: "Keelings has worked and will continue to work in compliance and co-operation with various Government agencies at all stages, to ensure continuity of Ireland's essential food supply chain."

Keelings confirmed the 189 seasonal workers flew on a charter flight from Sofia to Dublin on Monday, April 13. The company said all had been health screened by a doctor before they travelled to Sofia airport where they were temperature checked before entry, with all regulations adhered to.

Irish Independent