Mr Donnelly was questioned in the Dáil late last night, after it emerged he was aware of Nphet's concern surrounding the spread of the virus some time ahead of his Government colleagues.
Mr Donnelly said he discussed potentially moving to Level 4 restrictions with Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan on Sunday morning, but insisted that there was no mention of the possibility of a move to Level 5 until Sunday night.
Was I surprised, were my Cabinet colleagues surprised at a Level 5 recommendation – yes, we were.
“Was it a surprise to me, the Level 5 recommendation on Sunday evening – it was. It was a surprise... and for the various reasons I’ve outlined in the speech, we chose to go with Level 3. But you’re asking was I surprised, were my Cabinet colleagues surprised at a Level 5 recommendation – yes, we were," he said.
On Wednesday, Dr Holohan said he contacted Mr Donnelly on Sunday morning, outlining his concerns about the spread of the virus before Nphet met and recommended the move.
However, the Government said on Monday that the Level 5 recommendation had come “out of the blue,” with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar claiming it had not been “thought through” and that there had been no “prior consultation” with Government.
Speaking in the Dáil last night, Mr Donnelly clarified the timeline of events: "Early Sunday morning, I texted the Chief Medical Officer requesting a call before Nphet and on the back of that the Chief Medical Officer and I spoke.
"We discussed the current situation and the possibility of moving to Level 4. I conveyed my belief that it was important that Nphet adhere to the parameters set out in the framework for each level," he said.
"I contacted the Taoiseach afterwards," he added.
There was no suggestion, not even an inkling, that Level 5 was being contemplated. Had we known that, we would have sought an urgent briefing that night.
“We just discussed my concerns, the concerns I shared with him of the conversations I had had with a range of members of Nphet over the course of the preceding 24 hours,” Dr Holohan said on Wednesday of his conversation with Mr Donnelly.
Facing questions in the Dáil yesterday afternoon about whether the Government knew more about Nphet’s intention to recommend Level 5 restrictions, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said there "wasn't an inkling" that it was being considered.
“To clarify, and to make very clear, I was informed on Saturday, as was the Taoiseach and leader of the Green Party, that a meeting of Nphet was called for Sunday,” he said.
“There was no suggestion, not even an inkling, that Level 5 was being contemplated. Had we known that, we would have sought an urgent briefing that night, and that’s what could have happened, and should have happened in my view.”
Yesterday morning, Sinn Féin health spokesperson David Cullinane had said that Mr Donnelly needed to clarify the situation: “It’s very clear that the conversation was around a worsening situation, and a worsening situation would obviously lead to more restrictions and more having been done.
“So I think it’s important now for Minister Donnelly to set the record straight, but the reality is he sat back over the last number of days when there was a serious pushback, and indeed even an attack against the CMO by the Tánaiste in what could be described as a very aggressive way.”
Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shorthall said there were clear signs over the weekend that the situation with Covid-19 had deteriorated and new restrictions would be needed.
“Tony Holohan came back to work two days early, worked Saturday and Sunday, that there was an unscheduled meeting arranged of Nphet on the Sunday,” she said.
“We also know that Tony Holohan contacted the Minister on three occasions between Saturday and Sunday, so there would seem to have been quite a bit of contact.”
Asked about his views of Mr Varadkar’s criticism of Nphet over its recommendation of Level 5 restrictions, Dr Holohan said Wednesday evening that he had spoken with Mr Varadkar on Tuesday night and cleared the air.
Dr Holohan said he had a “long standing good relationship” with Mr Varadkar who “understands and shares my analysis, every bit, and has as much concern about it as I do.”
Nphet met again yesterday as 506 additional cases of Covid-19 were confirmed, with one new death from the virus.
Dr Holohan has warned he is more concerned about the virus now than he was when Nphet recommended the national move to Level 5.
However, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said he believes the Government will wait two to three weeks before deciding whether the country should escalate restrictions, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin adding that a gradual increase through the different levels of restrictions would be preferred by the Government.