An official inquiry into the State’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is set to be established in 2023, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.
The Taoiseach has said that such an investigation was important but that it should not start until the pandemic has come to an end.
Mr Varadkar said that such an inquiry should not be about pointing fingers or ascribing blame.
“It’s going to be about getting to the truths, understanding what happened. What we did well, what we did badly, what could have been done better, because we can’t assume that this is going to be the last big pandemic in our lifetime,” he said.
“In fact, you know, there’s a good chance that in our lifetime, you will experience another very serious pandemic, and we need to be prepared for that, and that will be the purpose of the thinking behind the inquiry. I’d hoped to have that established sometime in 2023.”
The Taoiseach make the comments in the course of an interview with political reporters.
He noted that the Covid-19 pandemic was not over. There has been a sharp upsurge in cases of viral and respiratory diseases, including Covid-19, during December with some hospitals experiencing overcrowding and long queues. As of yesterday, there were 678 people in hospital with Covid-19.
Mr Varadkar said: “I am conscious the pandemic is not over and people are still in hospital today with Covid-19. We need to bear that in mind and I am very conscious that a lot of the people who are on the front line dealing with the trouble in our health service at the moment are the same people who we would be asking to come before inquiries and take time out to prepare for their testimony and so on.”
He said that once the situation is more settled, his expectation would be that the inquiry “would be up and running during the course of 2023″.
Two senior sources in Government separately said the most likely form of inquiry would be an independent expert group rather than an Oireachtas Committee, because the terms of reference would be broader than public health responses, vaccinations and treatments, and how hospitals and nursing homes coped.
One source, who spoke on condition of not being named, said: “My expectation would be that an expert will be asked to do a piece of work. That certainly seems to tally with remarks made by Micheál Martin on the issue when he was taoiseach.”
The terms of reference of the inquiry would need to be wide, according to the other source. It would examine emergency powers; restrictions of liberty including lockdowns, compulsory mask-wearing and social distancing; value-for-money in procuring emergency supplies of masks and PPE from China; the use of support payments including Pandemic Unemployment Payment, as well as the efficacy of the testing and tracing programmes, and vaccination programmes.
The chair of the all-party Committee on Health, Seán Crowe, said that the issue of an inquiry has not been raised with him by the Government or officials. He said his members would be keen to have responsibility for such an inquiry, if requested.
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The Sinn Féin TD acknowledged that while the primary focus of such an inquiry would be health, its remit would have to be much wider and take in payments, supports, and questions of justice and liberty around the special powers that were introduced.
“It’s an important thing to do. I would like to think we as a committee would be consulted. If our committee would be capable of doing it would [ultimately] depend on how broad its terms would be,” he said.
Meanwhile, academic work has been conducted in Ireland on preparedness for future pandemics, mostly through the EU-wide PANDEM 2 project, co-ordinated by Prof Máire Connolly of the University of Galway.
The project is developing IT systems to improve the EU’s preparedness and response to future pandemics, including pandemic management systems to prepare for a wide variety of pandemic scenarios and responses.
The Taoiseach also addressed the mix between public and private medicine in the Irish health services. He said the new consultant contract, if accepted, would allow for the phasing out of private practice in public hospitals, a change that was “long overdue”.
“We think it’s okay for consultants to do private practice off site. But we don’t want private practice in our public hospitals any more,” he said.
“That will free up a lot of capacity and does mean that patients, at least in our public hospitals, are being treated on the basis of need, not on their insurance status. And that is a big change. It’s at the heart of the reforms and Sláintecare, it’s long overdue.”
He likened the system at present to having a “fee payer class” in state schools, with children paying fees enjoying smaller classes and more individual attention than those in the same building who were not paying fees.
“We want to make sure that our public hospitals are for all patients, that all patients are treated the same and our public hospitals are based on their need, not on their insurance status. And yes, if people want to have private insurance, that’s their choice. If doctors want to do private practice, that is their choice. But that won’t be happening in our public system. And I’d be really disappointed if 2023 wasn’t, you know, year one, or at least year zero in terms of making that happen.”