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New measures arrive amid apprehension over new variant Omicron

Inside Politics: Cabinet signs off on restitution of mandatory hotel quarantine and emergency powers

There is still something of that phrase made famous by Donald Rumsfeld, the “unknown unknowns”, about the new variant of Covid-19, Omicron.

Although experts in South Africa, where it originated, report its symptoms appear to be relatively mild, few governments are taking any chances. The messages give rise to a sense of concern about a new global surge.

The World Health Organisation has advised everybody over 60 against travelling abroad. The head of Moderna has said Omicron may have qualities that make it resistant to current vaccines.

That sense of apprehension is no different here. A sure sign is the number of new measures signed off in Cabinet yesterday, including two pieces of emergency legislation that will be rushed through the Oireachtas this week.


One will provide for the restitution of mandatory hotel quarantine, the other extends emergency powers in the health and justice areas until spring.

The Health and Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill will give the Minister for Health powers to make far-reaching regulations to protect public health without recourse to parliament. Some will mean an infringement of civil liberties.

As Pat Leahy and Jack Horgan-Jones report, restrictions may now be in place until the middle of 2022. "Other new measures require travellers into Ireland to show clear PCR or antigen tests, introduce mask wearing from primary school children from third class up and ask parents to limit their children's socialising," they write.

“Guidance circulated by the Department of Education will mean the requirement for masks for nine year olds will come into place on Wednesday morning, with officials saying schools could refuse to admit children without masks, though they stressed no child with a valid medical reason would be forced to wear one.”

The political atmosphere has changed on coronavirus. The fragile sense of unity between the parties - the “we-are-all-in-this together” vibe - has long since disappeared. The Opposition now frequently complains about alleged failures in the strategy of Government and Nphet, and what is implemented.

Sinn Féin, for one, will oppose the extension of the emergency powers Bill.

“We are not in the mood to give this Minister for Health any blank cheques in relation to introducing regulations where there is no accountability or oversight or debate,” said the party’s health spokesman, David Cullinane.

This has been the vein of political engagement this week. Criticism of mixed messaging. Criticism of not enough focus on ventilation. Criticism of restrictions not being strong enough. Criticism of the vaccine booster campaign.

It has been a bit of a mystery to people in Ireland as to why one of the countries with the highest rates of vaccination in the world is having so many cases. Part of it was that the virus spread among the unvaccinated: children under the age of 12 and those who refused a vaccination for whatever reason.

Many of those who get Covid have been fully vaccinated, but we learned that the vaccines have a quicker waning effect than we had thought.

For AstraZeneca the efficacy falls to below 40 per cent after six months, according to some studies. One study in the United States - conducted among US veterans - showed the efficacy against infection of the single-dose Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) dropped from 86 per cent to 13 per cent over eight months.

However, almost counterintuitively, the Janssen vaccine remained higher at protecting against death, at 52.5 per cent after eight months. That has been the one saving grace. The vaccines do not prevent people from getting Covid, but they are still very effective at preventing people from becoming seriously ill.

A political charge of ‘mixed messaging’ is always hard to defend. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, the butt of widespread criticism on an ongoing basis, actually rebutted the charge well last night on Prime Time.

Presenter Sarah McInerney said the fact the Government was advising parents to “minimise” indoor social contact for children while Nphet advice was to “avoid” indoor social contact represented “mixed messaging from two different arms of Government and authority”.

She was wrong on that front. Nphet is not actually an arm of government, even though another constant criticism you hear is that the Government is lying down and allowing Nphet and Tony Holohan to run the country.

Donnelly correctly pointed out that Nphet provides advice and the Government’s responsibility is to make decisions based on that advice.

It is not obliged to follow that advice and can reject it. It is an important distinction to make. The Minister who is constantly wrong in the eyes of the Opposition was right last night.

Will mica-redress scheme be enough?

The mica-redress scheme is the largest scheme of its kind announced by the State and will ultimately cost the taxpayer €2.2 billion (and that might be an underestimate) - yet is it enough?

As Simon Carswell and Cormac McQuinn report, the compensation scheme for the 7,500 homeowners in Donegal and Mayo affected by defective blocks containing mica have reacted with anger and disappointment to what was announced by Minister for Housing Darragh O'Brien yesterday.

Their claim is that homeowners may still have to fork out up to €60,000 to rebuild houses that have an average size for those counties of 2,400 feet (that’s much larger than the size of an average urban home).

It’s all to do with the sliding scale of per-square-foot costs. Although the maximum of €420,000 and the 100 per cent costs issues were resolved, the fact that only the first 1,000 square feet will attract a €145 rebuild cost (with €110 for the next 1,000, and €100 for the remainder) has led to claims there will be a shortfall. Campaigners say the average cost per square foot has risen to €150 with construction inflation.

It is a complicated scheme to address a complicated problem. Opposition TDs immediately condemned the scheme.

Politically, however, a limit has to be put on it at some point, with further claims now possible in a host of other counties that could possibly increase the costs to the State dramatically. A blank-cheque approach would be highly irresponsible.

Already there are questions from the public asking why the State has to bear the whole burden and not those who provided the defective blocks.

It can’t all be attributed to poor regulation. The new levy on the construction industry is designed to recoup some of the costs, which will be enormous.

For the Government, it was important its own TDs in the affected counties could bring themselves to support what has been offered.

That they have done, with Charlie McConalogue, Dara Calleary and Joe McHugh all giving support to the scheme with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Simon Carswell has a good piece on the worries of affected owners over the compensation covering their costs.

Best reads

Vintage Miriam Lord on a dramatic day in the Dáil.

A comprehensive report by Sarah Burns on the heated debate over the mica-redress scheme announced in the Dáil.

Cormac McQuinn has the details of a report that has recommended reforms in the appointment of special envoys after the Zappone controversy.

Great piece from Kathy Sheridan ranging across public attitudes to vaccinations, antigen testing and privilege.

Another timely and important piece that should be read by everybody about the gambling industry. This is the key point: "To date, in a manner reminiscent of the tobacco industry in the past, the gambling sector has shown little interest in fundamental change, locked as it is in the mindset of maximising the returns for its owners."



It’s a long day in the Dáil today with the weekly voting not taking place until midnight. In between, there will be a lot of debate on legislation plus the usual fireworks at Leaders’ Questions.

People Before Profit have a very topical Private Members' Bill before the House, the Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021. Nearly all of the Opposition parties have called for more comprehensive ventilation policies including the installation of Hepa air filers in schools. The Government has not been willing to accept such change. Cormac McQuinn has a story setting out the details of this Bill.

Among the six Bills coming before the House for debate or mention today are two biggies, the Finance Bill and the Maritime Area Planning Bill.

Leaders’ Questions is at noon.

Twelve hours later, the weekly voting divisions will be taken with the Dáil scheduled to adjourn at 12.30am.

Over in the Seanad, there will be statements on human rights abuses in China. You can be sure that a good few senators will not hold back, especially on the plight of the Uyghurs.

A most intriguing piece of legislation is going through the Oireachtas at present. It is the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill and stems from a Supreme Court case from 2019 taken by Wayne Ellis. The court ruled the legislature (the Oireachtas) could impose mandatory sentences but only if it applied to all persons.

The Bill seeks to implement the court ruling and repeal those provisions relating to mandatory minimum sentences that apply when an offender commits a second or subsequent offence under the relevant legislation.

This Bill trawls through the Statute Book to find Acts that allowed imposing more severe mandatory sentences for second and subsequent offences (not allowed any more). It came up with some obscure and ancient gems. One is the Dublin Police Magistrates Act 1808. It provided that a convicted offender “shall be committed to prison, without bail or mainprize (another word for bail), for any time not less than three or more than six calendar months for the first offence, nor less than six nor more than twelve calendar months for every subsequent offence.”

Its mandatory sentence is repealed. So are those of the Illicit Distillation (Ireland) Act 1831, the Refreshment Houses (Ireland) Act 1860, the Firearms Act 1925, the Firearms Act 1964, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, the Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act 1990, the Criminal Justice Act 2007 and the Parole Act 2019.


Another full day for the Oireachtas committees.

The EU committee is examining cybersecurity.

Health is continuing its examination of substance abuse and the impact it has on communities.

The committee on tourism and sport is turning its attention to an issue that's been highlighted in recent weeks, the abuse of referees at amateur soccer games. Cormac McQuinn has a report previewing the opening statements and the shocking revelation that two-thirds of referees quit within two years because of abuse.

The new chairman of Transport Infrastructure Ireland, Gareth Llewelyn, is before the transport committee. Cormac again has a preview of his opening statement.

Finance is looking at another important issue: the withdrawal of KCB bank from the Irish markets. Representatives of the bank will be before the committee.

Agriculture is looking at how the new Cap will impact young farmers.