Minister breaks ranks and calls for social distancing rules to be relaxed

By Daniel McConnell
Political Editor

A sitting government minister has said he is “baffled” as to why the Government has not moved to reduce the social distance rules from 2 metres to 1 metre, as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Breaking ranks with his own government, Junior Skills Minister John Halligan has made his concerns known to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar about the hard-line stance taken on social distancing at the insistence of the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan.

Mr Halligan is no longer a TD having retired at the last election but will be a minister until a new government is formed.

“It’s time for politicians to be brave and to accelerate the lifting of lockdown restrictions,” he told the Irish Examiner.

“There is evidence to suggest that the Covid-19 restrictions are having a disproportionate effect on women due to additional caring responsibilities.

"The Women’s Mental Health Network has also sadly reported an increase in incidents of domestic violence.

"I believe the time has come for our politicians to show faith and trust in the Irish citizenry, who have already sacrificed so much, and to expedite our return to normality,” he said.

Mr Halligan has said now is the time for the sake of our economy, for the sake of those waiting on elective surgeries – many in chronic pain, for our school children and for the sake of public mental health to re-open the country.

“More recently a debate has been taking place over the Irish policy of adopting a two-metre ‘safe distance’ for physical distancing, versus a one-metre distance as recommended by the World Health Organisation,” he said.

“I am baffled as to why we should be going against the WHO on this, considering that the Irish NPHET have found a 'lack of evidence' in differentiating between the benefit of a one versus two-metre distance.

"This small change to policy could and would have a massive impact on the ability of our SME’s and restaurants to trade, for our healthcare staff to treat patients, and for students to return education,” Mr Halligan said.

The minister, who has decided to retire from politics and did not stand at the last election, said he has been contacted by a litany of SME’s, not-for-profits and charitable organisations facing an existential threat as result of the lockdown.

These organisations are the lifeblood of Irish society, providing employment and support to our communities.

“At some stage soon we need to examine whether or not the perceived benefit of the lockdown outweighs the cost,” he said.

It was recently reported that Ireland could see as many as 1,800 hundred cancer deaths as a result of the people’s inability to obtain a GP’s referral.

“Is this a reasonable price to pay? Presumably, there will also be an increase in those dying from other treatable illnesses,” Mr Halligan asked.

“We know that in a great many cases for those living with chronic illness, the longer it takes to receive treatment, the worse the outcome.

"Indeed, someone very close to me has been left in perpetual agony due to the cancellation of an elective operation on his back,” he said.