Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said there will not be a special bank holiday on St Bridget’s Day to mark the Covid pandemic next year because hospitals could still be under pressure from Covid.
he Fine Gael leader said it was more likely to be a double holiday for St Patrick’s Day in 2022 as that would give more time for the country to recover from the pandemic.
However, the he told Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio this morning that the holiday could revert to February 1 in future years.
The Government has been wrangling with how to reward workers who served on the frontlines during the pandemic.
“Just in the last week or so, we can of feel that announcing a public holiday for the 31st of January – which would be St Brigid’s Day – or the 5th of February that that would be inappropriate,” Mr Varadkar said.
“With a pandemic that’s not under control. You also need to give people a bit of notice so they can work out their shifts and so on. Also bear in mind that public holidays are quite disruptive for our health service because the GP surgeries are closed, hospitals operate on skeleton staff,” he added.
A new bank holiday on St Brigid’s Day had been mooted, with frontline workers such as those in the healthcare sector set for a once-off pandemic bonus payment, although this has not been finalised.
The saint’s feast day on February 1, which heralds the start of spring, is still the preferred option among ministers and is likely to become a permanent holiday.
However, senior government sources told Independent.ie this week that an announcement during the current Covid surge would be viewed as “tone deaf”.
Speaking about the possibility of the Government bringing in more restrictions before Christmas, Mr Varadkar said: “I wouldn’t like us to rush into any decisions either because it would be a big mistake I think for us to impose a whole set of new restrictions in the next couple of days only to find out that we’ve turned the corner anyway.”
The Tánaiste said he is ‘profoundly concerned’ for people who got the one-shot Janssen vaccine because recent research has shown that the vaccine’s efficacy can fall sharply.
Mr Varadkar said the public needs to be aware that immunity from the vaccines “wains” and people should take extra steps to protects themselves – including wearing medical grade masks rather cloth face coverings in high-risk settings.
“I have profound concern for them (Janssen recipients) because there’s very strong evidence now that immunity from that particular vaccine… falls to as low as 20pc in a few months” he told RTÉ.
The Tánaiste said he would have preferred if the booster programme started sooner, but he said the Government had to await the scientific advice, and that he did not want to criticise the National Immunisation Advisory Committee.
Regarding the use of antigen tests, Mr Varadkar said he is in favour of them, and they have been used very effectively in certain work settings such as meat factories. However, he agreed that they are too expensive for most people to purchase regularly and said he would like to see them drop in price to between €2 and €3 per test.
“We want to make sure that they are €2 or €3 a test. So, I think the initial proposal was to subsidise them in the pharmacies but they’re actually very expensive in the pharmacies. So, bringing them down from €7 or €8 to maybe €4 – which is what you can get them for in the supermarket anyway – wouldn’t be a good idea.
“We’d be spending hundreds of millions of public money just bringing down the cost of them in the pharmacies when you could actually get them in the supermarkets for €4 anyway. We want to do something with the pharmacies and the bigger retailers that actually is meaningful for people,” he added.
Mr Varadkar said he hopes the subsidy for the tests will be signed-off by cabinet on Tuesday at the latest.
He said in recent days he has “detected an air of hopelessness”. However, he argued there are a number of things “going in our favour”, but ideally, Government and public health want to see cases falling.
Mr Varadkar said “we may need more restrictions heading to the Christmas period” but added that there is no need to be “fatalistic” about a return to some form of lockdown.
It will take another week to assess the current trajectory of the virus according to the Tánaiste and he said it is unlikely that any changes to the current guidelines will come out of a meeting with NPHET this week.
Following comments from Dr Ronan Glynn yesterday, who said public health never claimed schools are “safe”, Mr Varadkar said he agreed that no setting is 100pc safe but argued schools are still safer than “kids being involved in things like sports or drama”. He said everything possible must be done to keep schools open.
“Children need their education and I think it’s really important that we do all that we can to keep schools open. Teachers, education partners and the school boards have done a phenomenal job I believe in keep our schools safe,” he argued
He said NPHET is also looking at potential additional measures which can be introduced in schools, including mask wearing by children.
“Which is something we haven’t wanted to do up until now because it’s very hard to ask young kids to do that, but it might be in their interest,” he said.