The Irish Times view on politics of coronavirus: Government in uncharted waters

Caretaker administration has communicated well but lack mandate for longer term

Any lingering doubt about the scale of the challenge faced by our society will have been dispelled by the extraordinary, historic broadcast by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on St Patrick's night. Varadkar's speech to the nation – well-judged in tone and content – made a number of things clear: this crisis will get much worse; it will not be over quickly; it will exact a fearful human, social and financial toll. But, he emphasised, it is possible to avoid the worst outcomes by co-operation, responsibility, resolve and by acting together for the common good.

Varadkar's Government has managed its preparations for the inevitable spread of the virus here with resolution. Testing for Covid-19 is being ramped up; financial resources have been applied with speed and scale; social distancing as a strategy for containment has been rapidly and widely adopted. A huge national effort to expand and focus our healthcare services is under way. Both Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris have been admirably clear, calm and realistic. The contrast with the administrations in Washington and London is an obvious one.

But while the Government has got its communication right so far, it will be judged not on how effectively it has communicated, but on how effectively its measures ultimately protect the public from the virus. The truth is that Ministers and officials do not know if the preparations they have made and the measures they have introduced will be successful in slowing the rate of infection sufficiently to ensure that hospitals are not overwhelmed by a flood of patients in the coming weeks. They, like the rest of us, can only hope.

It is clear that further restrictive measures are likely to be introduced in the coming weeks, including advice to older people and those with pre-existing conditions which make them particularly vulnerable to the virus to remain in their homes. That move will place an obligation on people to look out for and assist their elderly neighbours. Public acceptance of and co-operation with any further restrictions will be greatly enhanced if the Government’s plans seem to be working. But the opposite is also true.


In an unprecedented situation, this Government is a strange beast – effectively voted out by the people but as yet not replaced by a Dáil that even before the crisis hit showed only a sketchy appetite for the responsibilities of power. The practical truth is that this Government must continue for the short-term, but its lack of a mandate means it cannot continue for the longer-term. In the meantime, the Government must keep Opposition parties informed and consulted when it comes to the latest information on the spread of the virus and the measures employed to retard it and to deal with the social consequences of the outbreak. Like so much else in this crisis, our politics is in uncharted waters.