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'Don't panic', says Leo as he jets home early from US visit

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Mr Varadkar and Mr Trump holding talks in the Oval Office

Mr Varadkar and Mr Trump holding talks in the Oval Office

PA

Mr Varadkar and Mr Trump holding talks in the Oval Office

Leo Varadkar emerged into the sunshine outside Blair House, the US president's guest residence, yesterday afternoon with a clear message to the Irish people back home: calm down.

"People don't need to engage in any panic-buying whatsoever, that's not necessary. That may create a problem in fact that doesn't exist," he said.

It was ironic that standing in the exact same spot seven hours earlier, the Taoiseach's announcement that schools and colleges would close for two weeks and a series of emergency measures be implemented triggered the panic back in Ireland.

Empty

"As a general rule, outside of work, people should seek to reduce social interactions as much as possible," he had said as dawn broke over Washington.

He then went about a series of bilateral engagements, while shelves emptied across Ireland.

The Taoiseach insisted later that retailers had assured the Government that supply chains are strong and "any shelves that are empty this evening will be filled again tomorrow".

But it was little wonder that he wrapped up what was already one of the shortest St Patrick's Day missions to the US by a Taoiseach in recent memory early in order to return home to grapple with the unfolding crisis.

Decisions on how to compensate businesses forced to shut and how to help healthcare workers who need childcare now creches and schools are closed will all need to be taken.

Mr Varadkar defended his decision to come to the US.

"In a very short visit, I was able to have the crucial meetings that I needed to have and still be in touch with the office back home," he said.

But the pomp and ceremony of the St Patrick's Day celebrations were ditched with no shamrock ceremony and not even a handshake between the Taoiseach and US President Donald Trump at the White House. "It's sort of a weird feeling," Mr Trump said as Mr Varadkar offered the namaste gesture in the Oval Office.

The two leaders held a meandering 25-minute Q&A with journalists where Mr Trump did the vast majority of the talking. He did not rule out extending the controversial travel restrictions on people coming from Europe, but said he believed the virus will "go away".

Mr Varadkar said the president had "acted decisively" as he secured an assurance that the ban on people travelling to the US from 26 European countries will not impact Ireland.

Despite widespread criticism of Mr Trump's unilateral action, Mr Varadkar said: "We've acted just as you've acted decisively in the last couple of days."

Reluctant

Mr Trump said Irish citizens will always be welcome in the US, declaring: "We love the Irish people."

He described the Fine Gael leader as "a very special guy" when asked if he would like to see him return to the White House as Taoiseach next year.

Mr Varadkar was understandably reluctant to reciprocate the endorsement ahead of November's US presidential election battle.

Later at a lunch hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill, he urged all countries to work together to combat the spread of the virus.

"Covid-19 reminds us that we, humans, are not masters of our world," Mr Varadkar said.

"This is a problem that is global. The virus knows no borders and we all have to work together to combat it."