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How two weeks that led to U-turn on level 5 decision unfolded

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John Maguire gives a thumbs up as he adjusts a flag hanging from the window of his home in Dublin city centre

John Maguire gives a thumbs up as he adjusts a flag hanging from the window of his home in Dublin city centre

PA

John Maguire gives a thumbs up as he adjusts a flag hanging from the window of his home in Dublin city centre

At the Cabinet meeting on Monday, where ministers met to sign off on a second national lockdown, there was a brief moment of light relief when Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys insisted Santa Clause should be deemed an essential worker.

She wanted to give young children hope as they faced into another excruciating six-week lockdown.

The mood among ministers has been particularly downbeat. They know the decision they made to lockdown the country for six weeks will have a devastating impact on communities.

"Look, ministers are upset and very emotional at the moment," a senior Government source said. "They are human after all and they know the impact this is going to have on their constituents."

The decision to impose a lockdown from today until December 1 was done before a memo was brought before the Cabinet. But ministers who did not attend the weekend meetings about new Covid-19 restrictions still had questions.

There was also unease, albeit not aired at the meeting, that a small group of party leaders and ministers were allowed make such as a significant decision.

Honest

The only one to raise an objection at the meeting was Green Party deputy leader and Culture Minister Catherine Martin who noted the lack of women among the team of politicians and senior health officials who agreed the new plan.

Ministers also asked why a six-week rather than a three-week lockdown was to be announced. Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Cabinet it would not be honest to suggest to people that the rising rate of new cases could be contained in three weeks.

There was a push to extend the 5km travel restriction to 10km and ministers wanted to know why gyms would have to close given the important physical and mental health role they could play during a lockdown.

The Taoiseach said gyms unfortunately can become hotbeds for infection due to the droplets being spread by people working out and they wanted to stick with the 5km in the hope that a severe lockdown will have more of an impact than a softer one.

Eventually, after three hours of discussions, the entire Cabinet agreed to the lockdown and the Taoiseach left to prepare to address the nation. At the press conference after the Taoiseach's speech, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was asked if he felt he should apologise to the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) given his criticisms of the group two weeks earlier on the Claire Byrne Live show.

He said his criticism were "valid at the time" and that he still believed Nphet had not "thought through" their recommendation of a national lockdown.

The Monday night interview after the Government rejected the advice of chief medical officer Tony Holohan's team was a key moment eight months into the pandemic.

Mr Varadkar was criticised for his tone but he also had his supporters in government.

"He was articulating what we were thinking quite frankly," a senior Green Party source said.

"How can you say Level 3 is okay on Thursday and then demand Level 5 on Sunday and it wasn't done in a way sensitive to how the public was feeling."

Mr Varadkar's team are also quick to note he did not rule out a so-called 'circuit breaker' lockdown and raised the possibility at a Fine Gael parliamentary meeting that week. While the first lockdown recommendation was dismissed outright, the second which landed last Thursday was taken more seriously.

Advice

The next day, the Taoiseach said the call for a six-week lockdown was being given serious consideration. Mr Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan also had a significant change of heart over the weekend.

As late as last Saturday night, Mr Ryan did not believe a six-week lockdown was necessary, but by Monday afternoon he had come on board with the Nphet advice.

"He wanted to keep things as normal as we could but he came around to the arguments after he had a day to think about it," a Green Party source said.

The Taoiseach spent most of last Friday in Brussels at an EU summit and it wasn't until Saturday that he could fully address the latest Nphet recommendation.

The next day, Mr Martin held a meeting with Dr Holohan and his deputy, Professor Ronan Glynn, about the latest advice.

Afterwards, Mr Martin, Mr Varadkar and Mr Ryan, along with Finance Minister Paschal Dono hoe, Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, listened to presentations from Nphet and the HSE.

Ministers were told Nphet's projections for new case numbers had been optimistic and the rate was higher than their projections had estimated.

At the current rate, they suggested around 400 people would be hospitalised by the end of the month. The numbers of people in need of intensive care cases would increase, as would deaths.

A lockdown exit strategy was also discussed. It was agreed the reproduction rate would have to go below one and new cases would have to drop on a continuous basis for weeks.

Yet it was still unclear on Sunday if the Government would go for a full lockdown, with most ministers and advisers giving the impression they opposed the action.

On Monday it was decided to follow Nphet's advice.

"Deaths might still stay low and other countries might manage better over the coming weeks, which will mean we and Nphet made the wrong the decision but balanced, tilted towards action," a senior Government source said.

"General understanding with Nphet is that if we are not down to 250 to 300 cases a week, their strategy isn't working."


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