As pressure continues to mount on hospitals now treating more than 800 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and with additional emergency services to be drafted in to assist intensive care units this week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that he is strongly opposed to income tax increases or welfare cuts as measures to pay for the enormous cost of fighting the coronavirus.
In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr Varadkar said: "One thing that I'm absolutely sure of, something that we definitely don't need in the next couple of years, is pay cuts - or welfare cuts or increases in income tax."
Stating he was optimistic Ireland would start to unwind restrictions in May and into the summer, Mr Varadkar also admitted that in due course it would be established that mistakes had been made in the effort to protect the elderly in nursing homes. "We'll find that we got some things right and we got some things wrong," he said.
However, as the latest figures revealed 33 further deaths in Ireland related to Covid-19, the Taoiseach was keen to signal to the public an approaching end to the current restrictions, and to rule out renewed austerity measures to pay for the massive undertaking against the virus.
Mr Varadkar's comments were made as the Social Democrats for the first time signalled that they have opened the door to participation in a new government comprising Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
Co-leader Roisin Shortall said the two parties would have to show they "are serious about ensuring things are different from now on". She said: "We're certainly open to looking at the document if Fine Gael or Fianna Fail have come to the conclusion that they got it wrong over the last number of years and they are prepared to do things differently."
This development comes as health chiefs have contacted a number of ambulance services about redeploying staff to intensive care and emergency departments to relieve pressure on overburdened healthcare staff.
Both private and voluntary ambulance services have been asked to provide paramedics and emergency medical technicians to help healthcare staff treating the critically ill Covid-19 patients on ventilators and to help them breathe.
Ventilated patients require proning, or turning, several times a day - an intensive and delicate task that can require four to six people.
One private ambulance operator, David Hall, owner of Lifeline ambulances, said his company is among several organisations that has been asked to provide emergency medical technicians and paramedics in emergency departments and intensive care units.
Dr Catherine Motherway, president of the Intensive Care Society of Ireland, was not aware of such personnel being used as of yet, but said hospitals would be prepared to take on additional staff.
"We are happy to take in staff to help in proning, and some units are looking at healthcare attendants to assist. So long as they are trained to use appropriate PPE, the requirements of proning, and the lead is airway-trained, all are very welcome and appropriate," she said.
The development indicates the pressures on hospitals that currently have more than 150 patients in intensive care.
Hospitals across the country are continuing to prepare for the expected surge in cases which is due to hit in the middle of this month.
The latest number of fatalities from the virus increased by 33 yesterday, bringing the total to 320. An additional 553 new confirmed cases were reported by Irish laboratories and another 286 confirmed cases were reported by a laboratory in Germany, according to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre. The total number of confirmed cases now stands at 8,928.
In today's interview with the Sunday Independent, the Taoiseach also detailed his plans for a major overhaul of the welfare system and revealed that the pandemic payment would be phased out for workers who lost their jobs during the Government's social distancing regulations.
"We are looking at how that can be done - one option is to phase it out so you wouldn't go from €350 to €205 or €203, phase it down," Mr Varadkar said. "Another option is to do what we wanted to do in the first place, to give people a proportion or a percentage of their income initially."
He said he wanted a new welfare system where those who become unemployed suddenly are paid 70pc of their wage initially and this was reduced over time if they did not return to the workforce.
Mr Varadkar also signalled that strict coronavirus restrictions - which have forced the country into a national lockdown - may be relaxed next month and gradually phased out over the summer.
He said he was "certainly hopeful and optimistic" that he would start unwinding the social distancing regulations next month and continue the process "throughout the course of the summer".
However, he added: "Now, I can't guarantee that; our best guess is that we're not yet past the peak. It will peak sometime in April, around the middle of April, and after that we may see the number of new cases falling off."
He admitted he may have got some aspects of the response to the coronavirus wrong when asked about the Government's late intervention for the private nursing home sector.
"When we look back on this in a year's time or two years' time and we can really understand what happened I'm sure we'll find that we got some things right and we got some things wrong and even the best of us will get some of the decisions right and some of the decisions wrong," he said.
Health Minister Simon Harris echoed the Taoiseach's comments about the winding back of restrictions at a press briefing yesterday.
He has said coronavirus restrictions can start to be lifted once the rate of transmission slows. A day after the restrictions were extended by three weeks, Mr Harris offered fresh hope that some measures could be loosened once the reproduction rate of the virus - the R0 - falls below one. An R0 of less than one suggests that, on average, an infected person is passing the virus on to fewer than one other person. If this is maintained, the virus will eventually die out.
"So the closer you can get that to zero, and the more the virus is suppressed, that means the more you freed up your ICU capacity," he said.
"And it does mean that if you did see an increase, which inevitably you're going to when you lift your restrictions, you'd have the capacity within your ICU, within your hospitals, within your general practice, within your testing system."
He added that the loosening of restrictions would involve a "blended mix of measures". "When we do it we'll have to be honest with people that we're going to do it, we're going to monitor it very carefully and if it doesn't work, we're going to have to revert," he said.
Mr Harris said he hoped the backlog of testing would clear this week. He said Ireland had more testing capacity than most other EU countries and testing per head of population was the fifth highest in the EU." Between 25,000 to 35,000 tests have been sent to Germany.
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Leo Varadkar should be on holidays now. He planned to go away next week with his partner, Dr Matthew Barrett, including a few days in Spain. But now, despite Fine Gael coming third in the election, he finds the ultimate responsibility for running the country, and forming the next government, rests with him.