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'We humans aren't masters of our world,  we have to work together' - Varadkar

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Leaders: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar listens to President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. 
Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Leaders: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar listens to President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

PA

Leaders: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar listens to President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Leo Varadkar emerged yesterday afternoon into the warm sunshine outside Blair House, the US president's guest residence, with a clear message to the Irish people back home: calm down.

"People don't need to engage in any panic-buying whatsoever, that's not necessary. That may create a problem in fact that doesn't exist," he said.

It was ironic that, standing in the exact same spot seven hours earlier, Mr Varadkar's announcement that schools and colleges would close for two weeks and a series of emergency measures implemented triggered the panic back in Ireland.

"As a general rule, outside of work, people should seek to reduce social interactions as much as possible," he had said as dawn broke over the US capital. He then went about a series of important bilateral engagements at the White House and on Capitol Hill, while queues formed at supermarkets and shelves emptied around Ireland.

The Taoiseach insisted later in the day that retailers had assured the Government that supply chains are strong and "any shelves that are empty this evening will be filled again tomorrow".

But it was little wonder that he last night completed what was already one of the shortest St Patrick's Day missions to the US by a Taoiseach in recent memory early in order to return home to grapple with the unfolding crisis.

Decisions on how to compensate businesses forced to shutter and help healthcare workers who need childcare now crèches and schools are closed will all need to be taken.

He defended his decision to come to the US. "In a very short visit, I was able to have the crucial meetings that I needed to have and still be in touch with the office back home," he said.

But the pomp and ceremony of the annual St Patrick's Day celebrations was ditched with no shamrock ceremony and not even a handshake between the Taoiseach and Mr Trump at the White House. "It's sort of a weird feeling," Mr Trump said as Mr Varadkar offered the namaste gesture in the Oval Office.

The two leaders held a meandering 25-minute Q&A with journalists where Mr Trump did the vast majority of the talking. He did not rule out extending the controversial travel restrictions on people coming from Europe beyond 30 days, but said he believed the virus would "go away".

Mr Varadkar said the president had "acted decisively" as he secured an assurance that the ban on people travelling to the US from 26 European countries in the Schengen zone would not affect Ireland.

Despite widespread criticism of Mr Trump's unilateral action, Mr Varadkar said: "We've acted just as you've acted decisively in the last couple of days."

Mr Trump said that Irish citizens would always be welcome in the United States, declaring: "We love the Irish people."

He described the Fine Gael leader as "a very special guy" when asked by the Irish Independent whether he would like to see him return to the White House as Taoiseach next year.

"I would always like to see him, I know they have other people that I know and I get along with very well. We get along with the country but this is a very special guy."

The Taoiseach was understandably reluctant to reciprocate the endorsement ahead of November's election battle where Mr Trump is likely to face former US vice-president Joe Biden who is winning his battle to be the Democratic nominee.

Later, at a lunch hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill, Mr Varadkar urged all countries to work together to combat the spread of the virus. "Covid-19 reminds us that we humans are not masters of our world. This is a problem that is global. The virus knows no borders and we all have to work together to combat it," he said.

In particular, he urged the US to devote its scientific resources towards developing better tests and eventually a vaccine.

By contrast, Ms Pelosi struck a more light-hearted tone in her remarks. "Everybody wants to be Irish on St Patrick's Day," she said. "In San Francisco we start celebrating one after Valentine's Day until one day before Cinco de Mayo."

But no one was celebrating among the Irish delegation.

The grave look on the faces of Irish officials as they arrived outside Blair House moments before the Taoiseach's early-morning announcement said it all.

"Pay attention," said one as he pointed to the podium where Mr Varadkar delivered a short statement that will be centre-stage when RTÉ is compiling 'Reeling in the Years 2020'. It may become a footnote given the scale of this crisis, but the optics of the Taoiseach delivering this unprecedented announcement from the US - and not the steps of Government Buildings - are not great for this caretaker Government.

The formation of a new administration will be further hampered by the decision to ban mass gatherings which Mr Varadkar admitted was a "complication" for the holding of party conferences to ratify any programme for government. He also said there were "real issues" about appointing a new government at this time with a new set of ministers, advisers and officials that need to read into their briefs.

However, he added: "It's my view that the Covid-19 crisis shouldn't prevent a new government being formed if there is a majority in the Dáil to do that. But in the meantime the Government will continue to do its job."

The Taoiseach, who has already resigned, arrives back in Dublin today to face into arguably the biggest crisis that has ever confronted the head of an Irish government, and one that shows no signs of abating.

Irish Independent