Does The Government’s ‘Path Ahead’ Plan Give The Country Hope For Better Days?Highlights from The Pat Kenny Show
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- 24 Feb 2021
Does the Government’s ‘Path Ahead’ plan give the country hope for better days? To discuss this and more Pat spoke to Minister For Agriculture, Food and Marine Charlie McConalogue.
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Government, as you know, has announced the new path ahead plan, which will see at least another six weeks of Level five restrictions and the phased reopening of schools across the country beginning next Monday in a televised address that they should be all, Martin said by the end of June, they hope that 82 percent of the adults would have received at least one dose of a vaccine.
We're joined by Minister for Agriculture Food in the Marine FENA, faulted for joining old Charlie monologue.
Minister, good morning and welcome. Good morning, Pat.
Now, the big talking point, I suppose, is the return of students to schools. It will be a phased return. We are, you know, told we should follow the science.
Now, what is the the scientific basis for going back to school? Well, it's based, first of all, but I just want to say that, I mean, the government is very aware of the, you know, how tired people are and how difficult not only the last year has been, but the last month to six weeks in particular. And I think the opening message in the address last night was that, you know, clearly there is an end in sight, but it is going to require us all to be disciplined in the next and the next period ahead, particularly in March and April, as we roll out the National Vaccination Programme to ensure that we can keep the numbers down and that we can allow the country to continue to get gradually get back to normal life again over the course of the months ahead.
Of course, the plan announced last night and agreed by cabinet yesterday is very limited in terms of the additional opening up that will happen during the month of March. And as you point out, that's limited to two schools, the first four years of primary and of leaving cert at secondary, as well as special schools and pre-school as well, with some opening up as well as health care in relation to non covid care. That's been very closely considered. And we've taken very much on board the advice of an effort in relation to what is safe and what we can gradually do.
And also, it's quite a cautious approach in that we are doing it step by step. And importantly, too, that will be very closely monitoring the any impact on case numbers as a result of that.
Because, of course, we do have since before Christmas, just looking at administrating, we have to monitor closely.
I'm just looking at the cases for yesterday, 575 cases and 45 deaths were announced yesterday.
And the last time you opened up the schools, the caseload and the death rate was much lower. So how do we open up schools when the death rate and the caseload is much higher?
What's what is the science behind this?
Yeah, and I think last time we opened up the schools as well part, we would have opened them all up at the same time and in one go, whereas it's a much more gradual approach this time around, very much being cautious and taking on board the medical advice, but also taking on board the fact as well that it is really important that we do try and get our children and young students back to school for their welfare and for their health.
So it's a much more cautious approach than what happened last time. And in the way that we are scheduling it and phasing it in, it will allow us the opportunity as well to actually assess the impact in terms of case numbers, because, of course, central to all of this is ensuring that first and foremost, when we carry out the national vaccination programme, that we do keep people safe. But we want to try and ensure that we do gradually in terms of the most important things, bit by bit, allow some opening up.
And that's why in terms of schools, pre-school and health care, over the month of March, there will be some gradual reopening. And then in advance of the 5th of April, we'll be able to consider, hopefully in a situation where numbers we can continue to bring numbers down. Consider what other measures might be possible in April. But I think, like, you know, it is really important to remember how tired the public are as important. And I sure like to point out, you know, Minister, is that we cannot.
But it is going to. Can I just remind you can you can I just remind you. I mean time. Yeah.
Can I just remind you that before Christmas, the publicans were tired and the restaurateurs were tired and the government responded to them because they were tired and opened up and did it badly and caused the deaths of many people who need not have died? I mean, that's the reality of it. So so here you're telling me that parents are browned off, parents are tired and students are tired.
So let's use them as a petri dish. Let's send them all back into school without doing anything differently.
No, that wouldn't I don't think that would be an accurate representation at all. And I mean, the approach that the government took before Christmas wasn't because anyone in particular was tired. It was because we were opening up in a way we felt it was safe to do so. And likewise, everything that we're doing now is very much about, first and foremost, ensuring that people are safe and trying to reopen the most the priority things, first of all, in a cautious way.
Of course, going back to before December, the thing that has significantly changed everything is the is the UK variant. And that was something which made a significant difference over Christmas and was the key driver behind the march infections rates and the hospitalisations and unfortunately, the deaths.
And that's very much changed the environment in which we're working. And if you minister tomorrow, you can make this tomorrow from Gerry Adams.
The UK variant hasn't gone away, you know.
No, certainly not. And I think but it is important in terms of the context of looking back to December at the moment, no, 90 percent of all cases are the UK very. And only 10 percent of the previous very. And so and the absence of the UK variant, you could see that we've been a very different position right now in terms of what infection rates would be. So we're very conscious of that. And therefore, to have considered very, very strongly the.
Here and we're working very closely with them in relation to how we can gradually open things. Importantly, I think, again, this is all against the backdrop of the way that we can get out of this, which is thankfully through the rollout of the vaccination programme. And there has been really good progress in relation to that. And we currently have had 350000 doses administered to now by the end of March. That will be one point to five million.
And then in April, May and June, there'll be one million doses per year or per month administered over those months. So by the end of June, we'll be looking at a situation where 82 percent of our adult population will actually have have been will have received a vaccination. So that is the means by which we can we can access it, but really importantly, very well. While the vaccination programme is ramping up at the moment, it's really important that we do ask and everyone does pull together to try and keep or keep or or patients and give one last push to make sure we can keep the figures down so that we can safely reopen and get into the reopening the schools.
You know that the variant, the UK variant that you referred to is more infectious to young children. That seems to be the science that's emerging from that. So there is an increased risk. And we know there was a report there of 37 children being hospitalised on account of covid. But what are we doing differently in opening up our schools? We were on to those in Germany, in Spain, in France this morning, and they're testing in schools. They're using lateral flow tests or in one case, a saliva test.
What are we doing?
Well, what we're doing is are we doing anything differently? In other words, are we doing anything differently?
Well well, first of all, I mean, there's been tremendous in depth engagement between teacher representatives and Minister Norman Foley in advance of the reopening in terms of putting the plan together. And of course, every school has made tremendous efforts and continues to do so in terms of ensuring that there's safe environments in schools. But the big thing that we're doing differently this time from before is a gradual and careful and cautious phased reopening where we're only going with the first four years of primary school at the start of March and indeed only only leaving our students at secondary school.
So the numbers actually at school would be much, much less. And then we will be monitoring that very closely, because you're right, this is the UK variant has changed the whole landscape in which we're operating. As I say, 90 percent of all cases now are the UK variant, and it does behave differently. And as we all know, to our detriment, it's much more infectious as well.
So are you testing therefore? Are there plans are there plans to do testing in schools? Because there's no point in waiting until, you know, John, in six year ends of symptomatic having them infected everybody in the classroom?
Well, there is there's very clear and well thought out protocols in place and schools, first of all, in terms of keeping students and staff safe. And secondly, in terms of how you react in the event of of some day becoming infectious or somebody and their family being infected is either the biggest the big consideration. I think it is a very significant one part this time around is the phase and gradual reopening in terms of the lesser numbers of school, the lesser numbers as well that'll be travelling to school.
And that's really important here. And in terms of how how that evolves and how we how we carefully monitor it, that will be central as well to the continuation and the progression and the phased reopening. So I think caution certainly, and this is our message to the public. It is about caution, the next number of weeks, in the next couple of months in particular, to we get to that stage where, you know, the most vulnerable in our society, in fact, are vaccinated and ultimately to where everyone becomes vaccinated.
And we came back to a normal life, but is very much predicated on us not going backwards, not losing ground and working together to try and keep the national effort open over the next number of weeks.
But the question is, we're not doing anything, not terribly different, spreading out the numbers a bit.
So if you have a small population in a school and you don't have infection yet, then you suddenly have the entire population in school and it goes crazy again.
I mean, why what's this problem with testing?
I had to tone it down this morning on breakfast and he was asked about antigen testing and its usefulness. And we know that, you know, places like meat factories are using it. And then he said remarkably that the chief scientific officer, Neil Ferguson, is actually heading up a committee to look into antigen testing when the EU before Christmas, the 18th of December, I think, gave the nod to antigen testing and as a very, very useful tool in this battle, which our government has turned its back on.
You know, the schools in Germany, the schools in France, schools in Spain, all looking at this as a very useful instrument and we don't know what's wrong with us.
Yeah, well, listen. And as Tanisha would have pointed out, we are looking and assessing it. And the efforts have very much been looking at this. And we're being guided and and taking their guidance very much in relation to how it can be practically implemented and its usefulness as a tool as well. So it is it is being considered. But I mean, in terms of the way foreign minister.
It took it took yes. It took five or six months for you guys to understand that masks could be of benefit.
You know, we are becoming impatient with the the lethargy that seems to be present in government.
I don't know. No, I don't think no, I think that's not not right. I mean, there was evolving advice in relation to Moscow over the course of the past year. But and I think the government very appropriately did take that on board and and updated our advice and our approach in relation to that. Likewise, we're working very closely with an effort in terms of any other additional tools that could be could be useful in the time ahead. But there has to be fully considered and you have to be know exactly what the benefit of is going to be and take the advice around that in relation to how we have planned for this very limited, gradual reopening.
Now, throughout March, we've worked closely with the public health authorities in relation to how we can do that and be safe in the process. And that's why and I wouldn't underestimate it all part, the very different approach has been taken this time in relation to the phased reopening, because we do have to closely monitor the how that evolves. Thankfully, last time in September when we reopened and worked really, really well in terms of schools and in terms of keeping infection rates closely in close or low and schools, this time around, we are dealing with a different variant, and that's why we're taking a much more cautious approach.
We hope that with the measures being put in place that we will be able to extend from the first four years of primary school to to all years of primary school in due course as time progresses. And likewise, in terms of moving on a second level from the leaving starts. But that will be very much informed by by closely monitoring the situation. And likewise, you know, in the wider community and all schools will make every effort, as they did before, to be safe in the wider community, despite the fact that our patients and our tanks are running very low.
It's really important that we do over the next few weeks how tight the way forward and the and the and to this is in sight. But important to that is that we do keep numbers low and we don't see people hospitalised. And very importantly, of course, that we do see all of our people vaccinated. And the vaccination programme is working and progressing very well by European standards. We're in the top third in terms of the of the roll out of that.
And certainly as as the weeks and months preceding, though, that will make a radical radical difference to the outlook and what we will be able to do. But at the moment, it is ramping up. It's going as fast as the as we're able to get the doses and the vaccines into the country and in that short and that that intervening period.
But as I understand as I understand it, the aftermath, whenever this government's approach is simply this, lock them down and try to vaccinate. And it's basically that's what we're doing, try to get as many jobs in our arms as quickly as possible so that we can end the lockdown, all the other instruments that might be available.
You've turned your back on?
No, certainly not. I think we are using every instrument at our disposal part. And I think if you look right across the world, unfortunately, the apart from the vaccines, which is the way that offers the route to returning to normal life here, thankfully, apart from that, it's restricting our movements and being really cautious in how we interact.
And, Minister, you don't you don't seem to address the question that keeps you just carry on talking through my questions because you don't seem to have the answers, the question of doing everything, quarantine.
How long has that been talked about by people like Dr. Sam McConkey? Would it be six months or more. And yet here we are in the early weeks of 2021. In fact, we're well into February. And we're talking about getting it through the Doyel, which is sitting two days a week, and then next week through the Chander then then maybe we might get to talk to Hotelier's and then maybe. And then maybe and then maybe. I mean do you not understand why people are frustrated again, as I say, the lethargy of this government.
No, I don't agree, but in terms of I think the government have been very responsive and very proactive in relation to trying to address the situation, as I pointed out from from December onwards, in particular, the arrival of the of the very radically change the situation. If it weren't at the very end, wasn't there at the moment, we'd be looking at 10 percent of the cases that we currently actually have, which would be a very, very different situation.
Also, what's happened in recent times, as well as the the the identification of a couple of other variants. And for that reason, we have identified 20 countries which are higher risk because of that which we have. We know we know all this.
But you still don't have quarantine in place. We know two and a half thousand people came in from Brazil in the first weeks of the year. We know that, you know, thousands of Irish people went on holiday, God knows where and came back without let or hindrance.
I mean, when you're trying to pretend that the government is actually doing things, it's not it's talking things, but not doing things.
There's no pretence there, partner. It's very, very real. And the measures are very real. And everyone across the country knows that in terms of the impact that has had in their lives and the daily measures they're taking, which have been asked by the government to do. And likewise, there has been in terms of international travel, an exceptionally restrictive approach taken. International travel is very, very minimal. No, it's it's 97, 97, 98 percent would have been an essential travel.
Only anyone coming into the country now has to have taken a patient regardless, regardless of where they're from. Of course, it has to be essential travel. They must have taken a test three days in advance that shows that their clear quarantine after they arrived in the country for a minimum of five days and take a test after that. The legislation is going through the door. This week is specific to addressing the risk that's arisen in relation to the South African variant and the South American the South American variant and the 20 countries in relation to that have been treated very differently in you're very, very good.
You're very good at just filling the time with platitudes, basically, because here we have a situation. I ask you a question months and months ago, people like South McConkey, we're saying we've got to quarantine people. We've got to prepare.
No legislation was prepared. You know, even in a just in case scenario. I mean, we have the Emergency Powers Act, which we can use in an emergency. It's there. It's parked. It's not used every day, but it's there to be activated. I mean, why did we not prepare better for the the possibility, if not the inevitability, that we would have to quarantine people?
Why do we not do the. Well, the point I'm making is there is a very, very clear process in place in terms of safety around anyone that's travelling into the country, and there's also very, very restricted in terms of who can come into the country. The legislation, which is being introduced now specifically is to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for those coming from the identified countries where why it wasn't prepared for for the possibility, the the now inevitability that we would have this situation.
Why did we not prepare for it earlier? Why are we doing it now at a snail's pace, given the number of people coming in from Brazil after Christmas?
We now know I don't agree if it is a snail's pace as it this I don't agree.
It's at a snail's pace. And if you look at what the situation across other European countries, but it's certainly not inconsistent with any of the approaches taken in other European countries. And we do have to also be cognisant of the fact that we are an island nation with Connexions to Connexions to our neighbouring island in particular. The legislation that's being brought in now is specifically to to take a monetary hotel quarantine for the four countries, which we identify as high risk.
But that doesn't mean that there isn't a very clear and restrictive procedure in place for those coming from other countries.
In terms of the first of all, the very low number of travel and the fact that it has to be sanctioned and also in relation to the requirements on them in relation to keeping medicines, you know, you know as well as I do the number of people who didn't fill in the forms at one particular stage in this, the people who weren't contacted to find out where they self isolating the belief that people are coming home for a five day holiday at Christmas would sit in the bedroom and not meet their pals.
I mean, this is all crazy stuff, but this is what we were expected to believe. I want to play you, though, some reaction from some of our listeners, some positivity to the government's announcement yesterday. But have a listen to what Amy, Dave and Valerie had to say.
I was a bit disappointed when I heard last night's announcement because like a lot of other people, I'm very tired of restriction. I'd like to be able to go down further than my five k go out into nature. I also work in a school and I am really looking forward to all of the students being back in because I think that the effect it is having on kids at a school is quite profound. We're so focussed on exactly what's happening with Corbitt and we're so afraid of what's happening with covid that we are not looking around compassion at each other.
I personally would like to see more freedom. I'm not in favour of extending the restrictions and I have a lot of feeling for people who are losing their livelihood. So I work for a wonderful supermarket in Portland, and we have a lot of loyal customers and we which we know and cherish, we have a lot of new customers now that are coming in. Since this pandemic started, we have been working nine hours a day where in the last nine hours a day we've never had a holiday.
We've worked right away, right the way through now. My argument is, if other professions are trying to bump up the list to get vaccinated, why aren't the essential retail supermarket workers in that list to be bumped up? I can't understand that at the moment. This is the only place that people can go to get their groceries every day. And we are in the front line all day, every day. We've never had a rest. Well, I think the opposition has been very harsh and very bad, not supporting the government.
I think it's all moaning and moaning. And I think the government are doing the best they can for the country. And they're not slacking on trying to get the vaccination. And it will just take us now another push for a few weeks. And I just think that there's too much complaining and giving out. Yes, the schools have been closed for a long time, and I think that's partly, in my opinion, is to do with the unions.
I wouldn't like to be in government dealing with this pandemic. They need a break and I think people should get more behind the government. A more expensive Christmas was a mistake. People went out, shopping centres were packed and people didn't think about their own safety and it escalated. We are where we are now. So some encouragement from some of the people there, obviously the supermarket worker wondering why they are not deemed to be in the front line, given that it's where most people, if they're out and about, they go to the pharmacy or the supermarket.
Do you have an answer for that sector, minister? Yeah, well, I think that the three people there very much are a broad reflection of many of the views that people have and also broadly as well, you know, a reflection of how tired everyone is. But I think obviously in relation to the vaccination programme part, there's there's been a very clear protocol put in place that tries to prioritise those who are who are at highest risk forced through the National Advisory or Ammunition Advisory Council.
And we're working very closely with them to try and ensure that as vaccines arrive that we that they have the biggest impact. And I would recognise very much that the tremendous effort that everyone on the frontline has made, shop workers, health workers, those in the agricultural community, those right across the board who are and who are in front serving positions. And it has been particularly challenging, particularly challenging for them. But I think for all of us know and the lady at the end, I think, summed it up well, that, you know, people are tired, but we must all know work together to to put in that push over the next few weeks to try and keep the figures low while the National Vaccination Programme rolls out.
And we are that is working really, really well. And it is and and it is going to be the way forward in this. And the other thing, of course, importantly, which is part of the national plan announced again yesterday, was the extension of many of the supports, which are important to support employees, families and businesses in the time ahead and the extension of many of those supports until the end of June as well. And also, we will be putting in place a national economic recovery plan as well.
And that's being worked on in relation to ensuring that the economy can reboot and and get into a strong position again as we come out of that. But it is thankfully, we can see light ahead for today is going to take more effort and more patience. And that is really, really difficult for everyone I know and the government understands. But thankfully, if we do work together on it, we can make progress. And thanks every day at the moment, it is a day of progress and it is a day further forward.
And we just need to make sure that in terms of the cautious approach we're taking, that there is no backsliding and that by being cautious when we open things up, that they stay open and that there's no further ways and that we do get back to work with everyone to to allow everyone to get back to their normal life in the best timeframe possible.
Yeah, I read some more of the comments in case you think that that selection of three on the audio was definitive.
Katherine says it's really frustrating listening to all of that. We had to bring our daughter home last September from her community house due to mental health issues. She has an intellectual disability. She's not allowed back to the house by the HSC unless she isolates for 14 days. We've asked her on several occasions, could she have an antigen test in order to go back?
But it's a firm no isolation is not suitable for people with intellectual disabilities. That's one of the tools I suggested that that the HSC or the government might use.
But they've turned their back on that and otherwise says, yeah, you know what I can say. And that you see part of the concern I understand that is there in relation to the testing is that it isn't it isn't comprehensive. And while it while it can catch some, it doesn't it doesn't have the effectiveness of the PCR test and the danger. Why is it being recommended?
Look, Minister, I've heard this from government ministers again and again. A PCR test is only as good as the day it's done, the same as an antigen test. The antigen test shows up when people are actually infectious. OK, and before Christmas, in late December the 18th of December, the EU recommended the roll out of antigen testing and in fact, bought millions and millions of them, which are now being made available to our government. But our government, by the way, could have bought their own long in advance of this and probably saved lives if they had done it.
So, you know, this mantra that the government comes out with, say, antigen tests are not all that reliable, bla, bla, bla, as as going back to that particular case, which you outlined there in relation to the 14 days of restriction and of course, of not moving in terms of being safe.
The problem and the concern about antigen testing is that people may believe that they are there infection free because they've taken an antigen test and then circulate and move and increase numbers as a result. And they I understand that's part of the concern that's there. So, yeah.
Minister, what do you explain to me? Will you explain to me why someone who takes a PCR test wouldn't be wandering around thinking they were infection free two days later?
They could be infected two days later, a test is only as good as the day upon which it's conducted. Yes.
But, you know, that argument against one form of test or another is applies equally to both.
But yeah, but I think the the evidence in the science would show part of the PCR test is very effective in identifying infection in a way that another gene test doesn't necessarily so. But listen, that's just a point. And really and listen, this is this is all not straightforward. It can be complicated, but it's just a point. And in relation to that, the comment, legitimate comment that that person made there in terms of pointing out, OK, well, we will leave it there.
Some optimism on the horizon, 82 percent of the population vaccinated by June. That is a positive ambition. Let's hope it will be realised with the arrival of adequate supplies of vaccine to so do. But Minister for Agriculture Charlie McCullagh, thank you very much for joining us on the programme.