It is now looking like the beginning of the end rather than the end of the beginning. Omicron has swept through the country like a hurricane. With 2.6 million people boosted and with so many people getting the variant (it could be closer to a million than 500,000), Ireland looks close to achieving that elusive status of "herd immunity".
All week the noises coming from the Government have been soothing. For once, the latest National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) meeting is not being portrayed as an irresistible force being met by an unmovable object. Ministers are openly talking about a rapid reopening.
The figures look good. Case numbers look like they have peaked and hospital and intensive care numbers are falling. Stephen Donnelly, speaking on Virgin Media's Tonight Show on Wednesday night, said that half of the 900 people or so in hospital with Covid were not being treated for the virus but for some other condition. All that has led to an optimistic outlook for the lifting of restrictions. Jack Horgan-Jones and Cormac McQuinn have been reporting on the latest developments including the booster vaccine programme being extended to April.
Already it’s clear the Government is looking at the post-Covid landscape. The Cabinet agreed yesterday to a €1,000 tax-free ex gratia payment to frontline health workers in clinical settings, and also gave the green light for a special bank holiday on March 18th. That will be the day when there will be a special State commemoration to honour the people who died from, or with, Covid-19 and the huge sacrifices made by frontline workers.
Leo Varadkar was reminded on Wednesday that he said in September he wanted the payment to be made to all frontline public workers, including civil servants who were involved in administering Pandemic Unemployment Payments. The cohort that was eventually chosen was far narrower. It's hard to draw a line. Gardaí could arguably have been included, as could have been firefighters. The Government did extend the list to army personnel who carried out tests, to carers, to nursing home staff, to hospice staff and to student nurses.
There did not seem to be too much dissent that those broadly identified for payment were the most deserving. The measure will cost more than €100 million. The bank holiday will cost a further €50 million. Neither is cheap.
The Government will not be able to afford to be as flaithiúil in the post-Covid era – expect some belt-tightening.
It begs another question. Is it all over? That is not likely. The virus is a global one and vaccination rates in some developing countries are shockingly low. The global Covax programme won’t make enough inroads. Big Pharma companies have to share their patents to allow the world to be vaccinated in scale. There could be yet another variant after Omicron. It might be equally efficient at breaking through vaccine barriers but it could also be far more virulent and harmful. Covid-19 has a long way to go before it becomes history.
A watershed day
The word “watershed” was used a lot in the Dáil yesterday and, for once, there was a sense of common purpose at tackling the issue of gender-based violence, changing attitudes and culture, and pivoting to a society where all people are afforded respect and dignity.
As Sarah Burns reported, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he was willing to convene a meeting of political leaders to tackle the issue of violence against women.
All other leaders and spokespeople who spoke during one of the most muted opening days of a Dáil in a long time called for societal and cultural change, including Minister for Justice Helen McEntee. She suggested that a single senior ministry would have responsibility for all areas of policy in relation to gender-based violence, with the Department of an Taoiseach having an oversight role.
Anne Rabbitte, a Minister of State, recounted her own experience of receiving a phone call at 3am from a man who was "violent and determined".
“‘We know where you are, you need to back off the lines. We will get you.’ My voice catches in my throat, I can’t breathe. I say nothing. ‘Are you hearing me? We will get you.’ Then silence, just me on my own, in the darkness,” Ms Rabbitte said.
Champagnegate continues to bubbly under
There was a chance last week that the Government could draw a line under the famous impromptu celebration in Iveagh House in June 2020, on the night Ireland was elected to the United Nations Security Council.
But the decision by Simon Coveney to order a report on the affair, and then his hard-to-explain decision not to tell anyone about it, has resulted in this becoming a political hot potato.
The new secretary general of the Department, Joe Hackett, will report at the end of the month. Coveney will have to appear before the Committee on Foreign Affairs to explain the lack of a response to the breach of guidelines until it was highlighted in the media, more than 18 months after it happened.
There have been a lot of comparisons between it and the shebeen that 10 Downing Street became during Covid-19 restrictions. But we are talking apples and oranges here, or a flute of champagne and a slab of beer. It was not organised. It lasted only a short while. It was a once-off. Nobody lied about it.
Still the look is not a good one especially as the then head of the department, Niall Burgess, was the one who posted the tweet.
Sarah Burns has the report on this.
In the name of God, go
Speaking of Downing Street, Boris Johnson really looks like he is in the departure lounge at the end of his stint as prime minister. Even in the bear pit of Westminster, his mendacity has been breath-taking and he has had a knack of getting away with it.
Not for much longer. His line that the bring-your-own-booze Downing Street lawn party was a work event doesn't cross any threshold of believability. One of the Tory's 2019 intake from the so-called Red Wall constituencies walked across the floor yesterday and joined Labour. And then David Davis, a former minister and a senior figure in the party for many years, came up with the line that might finally tip the leadership over the edge: "In the name of God, go."
Our London editor Denis Staunton reports on the twists and turns of a very dramatic day in Westminster.
Miriam Lord's column on the Dáil proceedings focuses on yet another promise which she hopes won't be as empty as the many that have gone before.
Northern editor Freya McClements reports on Boris Johnson reversing a decision that would have allowed Northern politicians to double-job as MPs and members of the Assembly. That was clearly designed to facilitate Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who is an MP but not an MLA. Every other party in the North objected strenuously to it.
Pat Leahy has a detailed report on the political difficulties that have arisen over who is included – and more pertinently, who is excluded – from the €1,000 Covid bonus payment.
Nphet meets today. Its letter to the Government will be crucial in determining the pace of reopening society. We expect the Cabinet to meet tomorrow and agree the first areas to be allowed to ease current restrictions – quickly followed by other sectors in a rapid phased reopening.
The Birth Information and Tracing Bill continues to be debated in the Dáil this week. As Cormac McQuinn reports there was a lot of blowback yesterday to the Bill's proposed way of dealing with birth parents who insist on "no contact". There have been objections to the device chosen – an information meeting which the adopted person must attend – when a birth parent declines to be involved in contact.
The Higher Authority Bill which reforms the sector is also being debated today.
The Ministers who are fielding priority questions from the Opposition this morning are Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath and Minister for the second half of the alphabet (otherwise Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media), Catherine Martin.
Leaders’ Questions is at 12.
The Private Members' motion is from the Independent Group over counting delays and rising costs of the National Maternity Hospital.
The Seanad is taking to second-stage debate the Labour Party Bill seeking paid leave for women who have experienced the trauma of miscarriage or are going through the difficult experience of fertility treatment. The Government has accepted the Bill, which is unlikely to be opposed.
At committee, the Public Accounts Committee is looking at RTÉ's accounts, which should make for interesting listening.
Housing will be putting questions to Cormac O'Rourke, the new chairman of the Land Development Agency.
The Ombudsman for the Defence Forces, Judge Alan Mahon, will be appearing at the Public Petitions Committee.