Politics

PCR tests harder to get than Garth Brooks tickets

Buyin’ or sellin’?

Anyone buyin’ or sellin’ a PCR test?

It was easier on Tuesday to get your hands on tickets for Garth Brooks than it was to get your nostrils around a Covid cotton bud. (And tickets for the Croker cowboy don’t go on sale until Thursday.)

Half the country seemed to be on the hunt for a prized Golden Swab but precious few were in circulation – unlike the virus. In the Dáil, TDs had stories of desperate people hitting up the HSE portal in the dead of night trying to score some nice young man or woman to lob the swab on them as soon as possible.

“You can’t get a PCR test for love nor money in Dublin,” wailed Richard Boyd Barrett, appealing to the Taoiseach to set up walk-in testing facilities as a matter of urgency.

As for Mary Lou McDonald, she’s had it up to here with the Government. But that’s nothing new for Leaders’ Questions.

However, her concern about the worrying pressure on ICU capacity amid mounting Covid numbers and rising public worry about the imposition of further restrictions will have found a receptive audience beyond Leinster House.

If that isn’t bad enough, “people’s inability to access testing is really, as they say, putting the tin hat on things,” she told the Taoiseach. And just in case Micheál Martin hadn’t realised: “We are only weeks away from Christmas.”

As if the nation isn’t frightened enough.

‘Dithering’

The Opposition’s Covid theme centred on what they insist is the Government’s lack of planning for the fourth wave. Or “dithering”, as Mary Lou prefers to call it.

Labour’s Duncan Smith, standing in for party leader Alan Kelly (medical appointment), also brought up ICU capacity and the dearth of PCR tests.

Along with other members of the Opposition, he said he called last year for PCR facilities to be beefed up. If the Government had listened to them at the time, “we wouldn’t be scrambling for private capacity to be used to try to meet the demand.”

Despite the “unbelievable amount” of tests carried out by the HSE in the last week, supply is still not meeting demand, he told the Dáil. “If you logged on right now, lunchtime, in this country you would not be able to get a test or you’ll have to stay up late, ’til 12 o’clock at night refreshing screens to try and get a cancellation test. It’s just not good enough.”

Although if Duncan looks on the bright side all this constant checking and disappointment should prove a great learning curve for the older ranks of the 10-gallon hat brigade when Garth’s tickets are released.

He agreed with Mary Lou on the mood of the country right now. Judging from the feedback he’s been getting the populace is “really, really upset out there and they are expecting restrictions coming down the line. So your Government are going to have to get straight with people.”

It’s all about planning, he told the Taoiseach, same as it was at the start of this pandemic two years ago and same as it is now.

Long-term plans

“You are going to have to make long-term plans and stop operating as if this wave is going to be our last,” said deputy Smith, advising the Government to operate as is if the virus is going to be around for the foreseeable future and to plan accordingly.

“We have planned and we are planning accordingly,” the Taoiseach tersely told him, with more than a hint of “don’t teach your Cork granny how to suck eggs” in his tone.

Marian Harkin of the Independent Group also joined the disapproving chorus with a fresh twist on how the Government should have seen things coming sooner and acted more quickly.

It’s neither today nor yesterday when schools began having difficulty hiring substitute teachers, but the advent of Covid has made a bad situation far worse. Why weren’t measures put in place when the pandemic first began to bite?

The TD for Sligo said so many primary school teachers are out sick or self-isolating that many schools are finding it impossible to find temporary replacements. “This is a crisis,” she told the Taoiseach. “It’s worse now than it was before.”

Duncan Smith mentioned how the need for more PCR test facilities was raised last year. Marian Harkin said she alerted the Minister for Education last year about the substitute problem coming down the tracks. By coincidence, at the same time Marian was telling the Dáil how bad things have become, Norma Foley was about to meet representatives from the teacher training colleges to discuss how to address the problem.

“But Taoiseach,” sighed deputy Harkin, “this should have happened this time last year. This is bad management and I hate to say that, but I think this needs to be called out for what it is.”

Micheál conceded that something must be done now “given the once-in-a-century nature of a global pandemic”. Measures will have to be taken “which you would not take in ordinary peacetime, I put it that way to you”.

‘Flexible’

All this will be examined, promised former múinteoir Micheál, but teachers will have to be “flexible” and adopt a less “rigid, bureaucratic” approach.

Those words will have gone down a treat with the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO).

“Yes, this is a once-in-a-century emergency situation and I believe that insufficient planning has gone into dealing with it,” concluded Marian.

But Norma was on the ball, as turned out. On Tuesday night she announced a raft of emergency measures to boost substitute cover during the Covid staffing crisis. This move was welcomed by the INTO in a flexible, non-rigid manner.

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach continued on his lonely quest for a little bit of appreciation from the Opposition for what his Government and the HSE has achieved along our two-year pandemic path.

Ireland’s performance so far “on the key metric of mortality and in terms of protecting life and severe illness, stands up to most countries across Europe and the globe”, he declared. “That should be acknowledged.”

But listening to the Opposition talk about PCR tests would give you the impression that “nobody is getting tested and no one can be tested”, even though 207,000 people were processed in the last seven days.

He recalled Mary Lou saying last year that 100,000 tests a week would be “the holy grail”.

“It’s all very well to talk about putting the tin hat on it and absolutely attempting to ridicule what’s going on but that’s not right either, deputy McDonald,” chided Micheál.

“I just don’t think it’s right,” he murmured disconsolately.

Maybe so, but unfortunately the Taoiseach has a better chance of catching Covid than he has of catching a break from that particular quarter.

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