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Who's in charge? Cracks appearing as tensions mount over lockdown exit strategy

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Tony Holohan

Tony Holohan

Tony Holohan

Ministers want to reopen the country even sooner than planned in a move that will put the caretaker Government on a collision course with the powerful public health officials whose advice shut down Ireland for more than a month.

The Sunday Independent can this weekend reveal the full extent of the tensions at the heart of Government as ministers push for the reopening roadmap to be accelerated, while Nphet, the powerful public health body headed by chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, urges caution.

Dr Holohan was confronted by several Government ministers last week, particularly over restrictions on the elderly, with some of the exchanges described as “openly hostile”.

Tanaiste Simon Coveney along with ministers Paschal Donohoe, Michael Ring, Josepha Madigan, Michael Creed, Shane Ross and Finian McGrath, have been among those to raise the need to loosen the restrictions on the elderly in private exchanges over recent days.

However, Dr Holohan was said to be adamant caution was still required to minimise the risk of a second wave of the coronavirus this summer, which could see tough restrictions reimposed.

However, despite warnings from the CMO, ministers are pushing for the elderly to be allowed do more than go out for exercise from Tuesday, visit shops and receive a limited number of visitors from early June.

The push to reopen the country sooner will put ministers at odds with Nphet whose chair, Dr Holohan, has been described by some within Government as “the most powerful person in the history of Irish public life”.

The Government is also increasingly worried that the cost of responding to the Covid-19 crisis — estimated at as much as €600m per week —will be unsustainable through the entire summer.

Pubs could also be allowed to reopen earlier than August if they adhere to public health and social-distancing guidelines. Publicans say they expect to be able to reopen six weeks ahead of schedule. Business Minister Heather Humphreys said yesterday: “If we find the coronavirus is abating considerably, well there’s no reason why these dates can’t be accelerated.”

In a sign of the growing tensions, it has also emerged that the Government added indicative dates for lifting restrictions to the Nphet roadmap for reopening the country, and also decided to review restrictions every three weeks rather than up to every four weeks as advised by Nphet. “From a Nphet perspective, we would probably be more cautious about the dates, because there’s obviously the possibility that we will need to re-impose restrictions,” said Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory and chair of Nphet’s expert group.

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A Cabinet minister said: “I think there is a bit of a mood change — that he [Dr Holohan] has got too much power and he is using it too strictly.”

A second cabinet minister said: "I don't accept they're all gods and have all the answers, especially when they cocked up over the nursing homes."

It comes as another 25 people have died of Covid-19 in Ireland, according to the latest figures. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre said it has been notified of another 343 cases of the virus, bringing the total number to 21,176. To date, 1,286 deaths in Ireland have been linked to Covid-19.

Meanwhile, there is growing concern that the caretaker Government cannot sustain itself much longer. Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has confirmed that two key government supports for businesses during the crisis cannot be introduced without legislation being passed.

The Sunday Independent understands one option being floated at senior levels in Fine Gael is a technical solution whereby all parties or a majority agree to elect a Taoiseach for a day for the sole purpose of nominating 11 senators, agreed between them, to the upper house. The Seanad could then pass emergency legislation.

"It really would have to be legislation that is essential not just desirable," a senior Fine Gael source said.

Efforts by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to entice the Greens into talks on government formation have hit the rocks amid internal divisions in the Green Party. There is also growing anger in the Civil War parties this weekend over the Greens' procrastination. Fine Gael ministers slammed Green climate demands, while Fianna Fail senators attacked their housing policies.

The Government yesterday signed off on an unprecedented €6.5bn package of new supports to help businesses reopen in the coming weeks, including a loan guarantee schemes for small and medium businesses, a waiving of commercial rates for three months, and a deferral of tax obligations for up to a year.

Who's in charge? See pages 10 & 11

Continued from page 1

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