Donnelly: An ignominious start to 2021

A slower than promised vaccine rollout, a lack of north/south health cooperation almost a year since Covid-19 reached Ireland and a barrage of bad publicity surrounding communication etiquette: 2021 has not started well for Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly TD.

The Minister for Health began the year by proclaiming in the Dáil that the Government planned to have 700,000 people vaccinated against Covid-19 by the end of March. At the time, 13 January 2021, Donnelly said that the figures were “highly provisional” and that they were reliant on the availability of the vaccines. “We are further planning to be able to vaccinate more than 1.5 million people in quarter two and more again in quarter three,” the Minister for Health said at the time.

Just over two weeks later, Donnelly was forced to admit in the Dáil that the 700,000 target was unlikely to be met. Donnelly told the Dáil that his target had been “heavily caveated” and conditional upon supply of vaccines from AstraZeneca. In response to a question from Sinn Féin spokesperson for health David Cullinane TD, Donnelly stated that Ireland had been due to receive 600,000 doses from AstraZeneca but that the company was no longer committing to that figure.

Donnelly came under cross-party scrunity, with Cullinane stating that his speech was “completely unsatisfactory” as it gave no new timeline for vaccinations. Social Democrats joint leader Róisín Shortall TD accused Donnelly of “over promising” on vaccine targets. Donnelly also stumbled when asked by Labour leader Alan Kelly TD about the amount of vaccines that had come into the country that week; Donnelly replied with 48,000 but HSE figures showed the correct number to be just over half that, 24,750.

Vaccination numbers are just one aspect of the fight against Covid-19 that has seen the Minister come under pressure. Donnelly came under sustained public scrutiny and criticism after it was revealed that he had responded to Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan, who had texted Donnelly to correct a statement the Minister made on radio that Dublin’s R rate was slowing when it was in fact increasing, with a thumbs-up emoji. Donnelly later said that both he and Holohan were “bemused” by the negative reaction to the revelation.

More disruptive has been a complete lack of cross-border cooperation on pandemic-fighting tactics, which has seen both Donnelly and his counterpart in the Northern Ireland Executive, Robin Swann MLA, come under significant pressure. The same report that revealed the emoji-only text also reported that Holohan had warned Donnelly about “weak” border controls and that Swann had written to Donnelly in November requesting cooperation to combat a new strain; this offer was not taken up.

With just under 105,900 people having received both doses of the vaccine and over 187,000 having got their first dose as of mid-February, it is clear that vaccine rollout has been much slower than Donnelly hoped. Pressure is now also coming from businesses as Institute of Directors in Ireland polling shows the slow vaccine rollout to be the perceived biggest threat to business at the moment.

Donnelly has made further figure-related mistiakes, saying 70,000 jabs would be administered over a two-week period in February when the real figure was 57,000, and has been on the receiving end of conduct-related criticism following a terse exchange with Leas-Cheann Chomhairle Catherine Connolly. Quite a significant recovery will be required for the Wicklow TD’s ministerial debut to be given the ‘thumbs up’ by the public any time soon.

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