By David Young, PA
Ireland’s handling of the Covid pandemic must be examined by a public inquiry, Mary Lou McDonald has said.
The Sinn Fein President was commenting on reports that the Government intended to appoint a panel of experts to examine the state response to the emergency and had decided against a commission of inquiry.
With Ireland having emerged from the majority of its Covid-19 restrictions at the weekend, there is increasing political focus on how to evaluate the handling of the pandemic.
Asked about the Sunday Times report about a proposed expert panel, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly insisted the issue had not yet been fully discussed at a government level.
Last week, Taoiseach Micheal Martin said he would describe the intended examination of the pandemic response as an “evaluation”.
Ms McDonald insisted a public inquiry was required so lessons could be learned.
“The idea that you create a panel to do this, I think is not sufficient,” she told RTE Radio One.
The Sinn Fein leader added: “We have argued for a public inquiry, we recognise that it needs to be time bound and it has to look at all of the areas, an area of particular concern is the experience in nursing homes in the first wave of this public health emergency, but there are other issues that need to be investigated, some of them very serious let-downs and flaws within the management of this public health emergency.”
Ms McDonald acknowledged there were other aspects of the state response that were carried out “efficiently and effectively”.
She said an inquiry would also allow personal experiences of the pandemic to be heard and recorded.
“The public inquiry has to allow a platform for those experiences to be recorded, to be validated, to be heard, understood and then responded to,” she said.
Asked whether the Government had ruled out a public inquiry, Mr Donnelly told RTE: “That conversation hasn’t really happened at government level. What I’ve been focused on is the health services and what we can learn both in mistakes that will have been made, because of course we haven’t got everything right, but also in terms of things that worked very well, to make sure that we’re in the best possible position.”
The minister said he was establishing a group to look at lessons learned specifically within the healthcare system.
Ireland has taken a significant stride back to normality with the lifting of most of the curbs on society.
The moves announced by the Government on Friday evening came into effect at 6am on Saturday.
An 8pm curfew on the hospitality sector has gone, with pubs and restaurants able to trade restriction-free and without the need for social distancing.
Covid certification passes are no longer required to gain entry to hospitality, entertainment and leisure outlets.
Live events and sporting events can now return to full capacity, while guidance advising limits on household visits has been removed and workers across Ireland will return to offices on a staggered basis from Monday.
Only a small number of restrictions remain in place, including the continued requirement to wear masks in settings such as shops and on public transport; self-isolation rules; and the use of Covid passes for international travel.
On Sunday, Minister Donnelly expressed hope that the regulations requiring face mask wearing in specific sectors would not need to be renewed when they lapse at the end of March.
The minister was also pressed on the controversy around what workers will and will not be eligible for the Government’s 1,000 euro pandemic bonus.
The tax-free payment is envisaged for frontline workers in clinical settings.
The criteria has prompted questions as to why other groups involved in the pandemic response have been excluded.
Asked why GP practices were not included, Mr Donnelly said the scheme had to have some limit.
“That payment has to be bounded at some point,” he said.
“One of the decisions government took was to bound it primarily to people who are either directly employed by the HSE or contracted in, so agency nurses for example in the hospitals, but I would just say that is not to diminish the really extraordinary work that all those working in general practice have done and continue to do.”
Ms McDonald said the inclusion of GP practices was a “really fair ask”.
The Sinn Fein President also made the case for family carers.
“I think there is one category of people who have been really ignored and left behind again in this scenario and that is carers,” she added.
The notification of a further 4,731 cases of Covid-19 were reported by the Department of Health on Sunday.
In addition to the PCR notifications, 3,395 people registered a positive antigen test through the HSE portal in the previous 24-hour reporting period.
As of 8am on Sunday, there were 845 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 79 in intensive care.