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.
Philip Ryan: A lot has been asked of the public this weekend and for the coming month. Is there any glimmer of hope you can give them?
Leo Varadkar: I really want to thank the Irish people for cooperating with the new regulations, and social distancing, but unfortunately we do have to ask for more, because the virus isn’t going away.
We have seen a decrease in which the rate of the virus is spreading, so we’re seeing some success in the rate which the virus is spreading and slowing down. But unfortunately, as people have seen in the last couple of days, the number of deaths continues to rise, very sadly. And the number of people who need to be ventilated because they’ve become very ill from Covid-19 is rising too.
PR: What needs to happen for this to end?
LV: I am certainly hopeful and optimistic that we’ll be able to start to unwind the restrictions starting in May and then throughout the course of the summer. 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. After that we may see the number of new cases falling off.
PR: So the restrictions will be eased off on a phased basis — we’re not talking about everyone being allowed back into Temple Bar straight away?
LV: So the restrictions were brought in, if you like, in three phases and the Nphet [National Public Health Emergency Team] are currently working on a plan to release the restrictions in phases. The idea would be to unwind the restrictions in steps, but I also need to be very honest with people. There is a risk that as we start unwinding the steps the virus might start spreading again and we’d have to reintroduce the restrictions.
PR: A return of the restrictions after they’ve been lifted would be big blow to the public.
LV: One of the concerns we have, of course, is that if we do release some of the restrictions in May that it might send out the wrong message to the public. People might say ‘OK’ and start doing things they weren’t doing before. When it started, in many ways the public were ahead of the advice — shops closed before they had to, gyms closed before they had to, people who were older cocooned before they were told to, and that was a good thing in many ways. But the reverse is also possible as we unwind restrictions — that people’s behaviour may change. That’s a worry.
PR: Nursing homes were one of the groups that did that themselves. Nursing Homes Ireland advised members to introduce stricter guidelines for people visiting and at the time the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan suggested they were wrong. Do you think, in hindsight, when we see the clusters in nursing homes that he got that one wrong?
LV: Well, you know when it comes to those things, we’re always guided by the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and Nphet. 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. Even the best of us will get some of the decisions right and some of the decisions wrong. It’s too early to say really, at this stage, whether or not that was the right or wrong decision — although it did change within a day
PR: But when you see the clusters now, is that not confirmation that it was the wrong decision?
LV: No, it’s not. We see all over Europe and all over the world that clusters of infection develop in healthcare settings, nursing homes and in hospitals so it was always likely that there would be clusters in nursing homes. This is a virus that targets people over 70, targets people with underlying conditions, so anywhere where you find a lot of old people or a lot of people with underlying conditions you’re going to see higher risk clusters.
PR: Do you not regret that it was three weeks into the crisis until people eventually sat down and discussed how to act on nursing homes, three weeks before Nphet really took that seriously.
LV: You know, I honestly believe we can’t make that kind of assessment until we’re through this crisis and I’m sure once we’re through this pandemic and it’s over, we will look back at everything that was done and look at everything that could have been done sooner or later and what worked and what didn’t.
PR: Something related to the nursing homes is the amount of information that’s being let out by the HSE. Obviously the HSE has the figures for the number of deaths within one nursing home, or linked to a certain hospital, or the amount of outbreaks among staff in a certain hospital. Micheal Martin has even mentioned this. Do you think a little bit more information should be given out on those areas?
LV: Over the course of the pandemic more information has been given out and it’s intended that more information will be given as the days go along. At the very start there was a concern about giving out any information that might breach the confidence of any individual patient, when there were only one or two cases.
PR: Another aspect of this crisis is the extraordinary welfare package. There are cases, and you’ve talked about it yourself, where some people are earning more now. How do you envisage unwinding all this whenever that happens?
LV: First of all, I don’t have any regrets about the fact that we put in place a generous welfare package. The reason we did it, really, was because a huge amount of people were about to lose their jobs suddenly, with no inkling, no idea the week before that they were about to lose their jobs. Now, ideally, what we would like to have done was given everyone who had lost their job 70pc of their income up to a certain limit, but there was no way we could do that quickly so in order to get people money right away we just took the average which was 70pc of earnings in those sectors and that worked out at €350.
PR: But it has resulted in some people being better off now?
LV: It has created anomalies that there are some people, like part-time workers, who are now better off. But I’d rather have that consequence than the reverse — which would have been trying to develop a scheme that was perfect but would have left people with no money for weeks. You see the alternative — you see in the UK self-employed people are getting nothing ’til June, in Northern Ireland people who have lost their jobs are only getting £100 per week, as opposed to €350 here. So not withstanding anomalies we’ve created, I think we’ve done the right thing overall.
PR: What about unwinding it?
LV: That’s all going to depend on how long this lasts. I would hope when this ends most of those people will be able to go back to work very quickly. I don’t think it will be possible to again stop it suddenly. We will have to unwind it. 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. Another option is to do what we wanted to do in the first place, is to give people a proportion or a percentage of their income initially and you could work out a system like that over three months but not over three days. But one thing I don’t think we will want to change is this concept that when somebody who loses their job suddenly, that they should get a higher amount at the start.
PR: So a new type of welfare system?
LV: Actually, it used to be the case in Ireland and it’s the norm in European welfare systems that if you’re paying PRSI for years and years and years, if you lose your job in the first few weeks of unemployment you get a higher amount, 60pc or 70pc of your salary for up to the first few weeks. That really cushions the blow of losing your job. It’s a while before you go down to the basic rate, which is €203 in Ireland. It’s one thing we’d like to retain. It’s not cheap. It’s one thing we’d like to retain as a principle.
PR: You also made changes to sick pay?
LV: Yeah, the second thing was the whole issue around sick pay, because we were afraid that people mightn’t take the time off sick, mightn’t self-isolate because of the fear of losing their income, because they don’t have sick pay.
We brought in this Covid sick pay payment very early on and I think one of the things that should come out of this crisis is a better sick pay system for everyone living from week to week.
PR: I’d like to move on to government formation talks. Your relationship with Micheal Martin over the years has not been great. You’re now talking about entering into government with him. Have you moved to a stage where you trust him?
LV: Well I guess I’m going to find out and the only way we can find out is by forming a government. The truth is, for the past four years, if not longer, we’ve been opponents. In fact, my first job in politics was Opposition spokesperson for Enterprise and he was Minister for Enterprise, so we’ve always been in an opposition role. But in politics you have to be able to work with people.
PR: Do you think you can have a relationship in which one of you is Tanaiste and the other Taoiseach?
LV: First of all, no decision has been made on how the Taoiseach/Tanaiste relationship will work or who goes first or anything like that. The focus has really been on the policy programme and what the next government can do for the country — how it can get us through this crisis and also help us to rebuild and look to the future. But there are two things that I’m very definite about. One, it has to be an equal relationship. Fianna Fail/Fine Gael have roughly the same number of seats, got roughly the same amount of votes. It’s not going to work, it’s not going to last if it isn’t an equal relationship — both in terms of the expression of our policy in values, but also positions in government.
PR: And the second issue?
LV: Secondly, we do need a third pillar, we need a third party in the government so that we can bring in new ideas, new faces — but also particularly so that we have a working majority. The last thing this country needs is another minority government. It’ll be a difficult couple of years ahead but also an opportunity reshape our society and our economy and that’s going to require a government with a majority, a government that can afford to lose a few TDs along the way.
PR: There’s a lot of talk about the next government being ‘radical’ and more left wing. Are you concerned, as a more centre-right party leader, that you could lose some of your core vote?
LV: Part of the political tradition that I come from believes in the concept of a social market economy. We recognise that a market economy — being pro-business, pro enterprise, having relatively low taxes, all those things — is the best way to generate wealth. But it’s not the best way to distribute wealth and the role of government is to make sure you build a good, functional society with affordable access to healthcare, education, housing and childcare for all. I think what we’re all developing with Fianna Fail is very much in line with that traditional belief in a social market economy. It’s not a socialist document — it doesn’t call for higher taxes and greater state control — but it is certainly not a neo-liberal free market document either. It’s very much in the social market economy space, part of the Christian Democratic tradition politics — and I don’t think it’s far away from a Fianna Fail tradition.
PR: You’ve talked about cutting taxes to help us recover from the coronavirus emergency?
LV: 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. Because all that will do is depress domestic demand and make the economic situation worse.
We did see, in the first government that I was a member of, Michael Noonan taking that decision to reduce VAT in tourism and hospitality and get rid of the travel tax. I don’t think anyone would argue that wasn’t successful in terms of boosting the hospitality sector.
PR: Will you look at doing this again?
LV: You can do smart things with taxes to create employment, but they have to be thought through — and there may be other mechanisms by which we can boost the economy. Certainly I’ll want to maintain capital spending, keep investing in those new houses, in the public transport, in the primary care centres and hospitals, because all that creates jobs in construction and also creates tax revenues and social infrastructure.
PR: Are you open to extending the rent freeze?
LV: I don’t think that will be necessary. In fact, I think rents are likely to fall. At least initially, we are looking at higher unemployment and reduced incomes this year. Probably reduced inward migration as well. We’ve already seen an increase in properties available for rent as well as an increased level of vacancy in new developments in central Dublin. In that environment, it’s hard to see any landlord increasing rents. They may be glad to have a reliable paying tenant. Rents will probably fall. I don’t think this is a bad thing, especially in Dublin. House prices in Ireland are still lower today than when they peaked back in 2008 or 2009 but rents are at an all-time high. They are going to come down.
PR: If you can’t get any of the parties on board, would you be willing to turn to Mary Lou McDonald?
LV: I respect the fact that Sinn Fein won half a million or more votes in the election. And I respect those voters. But I have to respect even more the half million people who voted for Fine Gael. And they voted for us on the clear understanding that we would not go into government with Sinn Fein for stated reasons. Sometimes, in politics, you have to go back on your word because of factors outside of your control. This is not one of those occasions and I am true to my word.
PR: You’re from a family full of medics — how are they getting on?
LV: They’re doing OK. They’re all in different roles obviously. My brother-in-law, in England, is in an NHS hospital where he’s a geriatrician, so I think he’s the one who’s the busiest and most exposed, seeing Covid patients every day. I try to touch base with him at least once or twice a week, just to kind of get a sense of what might be coming our way. My partner Matt, he works in St Vincent’s. They’ve split the hospital into Covid patients and non-Covid patients and he’s on a non-Covid side, but he still sees Covid patients from time to time.
PR: Do you have to take extra social distancing precautions, with your partner working in a hospital while you’re leading a country?
LV: It is a risk, yeah, but it’s a small risk. One thing I’m very conscious of is that we’re asking — and I’m asking particularly — our healthcare workers on the wards, in ICUs, in general practice, in testing centres, we’re asking them to take a risk every day. And that’s why I think that we as a society, as citizens, need to heed the advice given every day by our public health doctors.
Irish News Premium
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.