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fiery meeting Leo Varadkar tells critics to 'provide evidence' teachers and gardai are more at risk from Covid


Enterprise Minister Leo Varadkar signed off on new code of practice. Photo: Frank McGrath

Enterprise Minister Leo Varadkar signed off on new code of practice. Photo: Frank McGrath

Enterprise Minister Leo Varadkar signed off on new code of practice. Photo: Frank McGrath

TÁNAISTE Leo Varadkar challenged his TDs to provide evidence that gardaí or teachers are more at risk of getting seriously ill from Covid-19 after coming under fire over changes to the vaccination schedule. 

At Fine Gael's and Fianna Fáil's parliamentary party meetings last night, Coalition ministers, TDs and senators criticised changes to the vaccination programme that will see people prioritised on the basis of age and not occupation.

The move has sparked anger among gardaí and teachers, who had expected to be vaccinated sooner.

In a significant intervention at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting, Education Minister Norma Foley said the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) must provide "a detailed rationale" for their recommendation to change the vaccination sequence.

Mr Varadkar told Fine Gael colleagues that if they had data that gardaí and teachers are more likely to become seriously ill from the virus, they should give it to him and he would present it to the NIAC.

He said it would have been better if ministers had got the NIAC advice on changes to the programme earlier so they could have consulted unions, and noted that the advice had leaked as the Cabinet was meeting on Tuesday.

He strongly defended the science behind the changes, insisting it could not be scientifically shown that a 35-year-old teacher is more at risk of dying than a 55-year-old retail worker.

Mr Varadkar also told the meeting it was "notable" that no contributor had mentioned retail, meat plant or childcare workers.

He said there was a reason why people champion gardaí and teachers but not those other workers. He said it was not a good reason, and the party needed to be honest about that.

Mr Varadkar's comments led to accusations from Carlow-Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan of "very disingenuous answers" on the issue.

In written exchanges over the chat feature during Wednesday's online meeting, Mr Phelan said that "teachers and gardaí and childcare workers were slated for specific positions on [the] vaccination schedule" and that had now been changed.

Mr Varadkar responded that the "list of workers/professions was never defined" and that "assumptions were made and expectations created, but that is a different thing".

But Mr Phelan said those categories knew where they were on the list, and "now we've scrapped the list".

Mr Varadkar asked: "Who told them that they were? Send me the link/statement or circular.

"Education was in there but was very low on the list 13th or 14th and they objected to that."

Mr Phelan responded: "Yep. And we've scrapped the list. Answers are tone deaf and there's an underlying tone about colleagues raising issues which is utterly unacceptable."

Earlier, Justice Minister Helen McEntee said gardaí were disappointed by the decision and had expected to be prioritised. She said she would meet garda unions to explain the logic.

Former education minister Joe McHugh warned that TDs would face a campaign from teachers over the issue.

Junior minister Patrick O'Donovan said that up to 35 gardaí in one district in his constituency had contracted Covid and had been left "bitterly disappointed" by the decision.

Senator Jerry Buttimer said the Government had "missed a trick" by not prioritising gardaí.

At the Fianna Fáil meeting, Taoiseach Micheál Martin heard complaints that vital segments of society - and party support - were being alienated by being told they would not be prioritised as a group for vaccination.

TDs Cathal Crowe, Cormac Devlin and Barry Cowen raised changes to the vaccination roll-out, asking for teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) to be granted further consideration because of their work and conditions.

Former agriculture minister Mr Cowen said he would reluctantly accept the change, but that a timeline for the vaccination programme must now be published.

The Taoiseach told the meeting the "strong clinical advice" was that age is the key factor in Covid-19 hospitalisations, which justified the changes.

He said older teachers and SNAs will get the vaccine sooner.

The new system will allow for a faster roll-out.

Brendan O'Connor, of the Garda Representative Association, feels like the "door has been slammed in our faces".

"Since the start of the pandemic, the Government has appreciated the effort the guards have made," he said

"The public attitude surveys show we policed the pandemic well. We enforced laws that were very restrictive but did it in a fashion that maintained public support for those measures.

"We feel very let down. Gardaí aren't entitled to take industrial action, so we're asking if the Government is taking advantage of that. It's a question that needs to be answered."

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