independent.ie– Hundreds of thousands of workers and businesses have been left in limbo this weekend after a split emerged between the Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) over plans for returning to work.
Deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn blindsided the Cabinet by calling on people to work from home when possible throughout the autumn and winter months.
Dr Glynn’s mid-afternoon intervention came in a video message he posted on Twitter yesterday.
It is at odds with the Government’s policy of encouraging a gradual return to offices, and has sparked confusion among employers, unions as well as senior ministers.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin later addressed Dr Glynn’s comments by insisting that the Government’s position on a phased return to work had not changed.
However, Mr Martin also said he would consider any recommendations from Nphet ahead of plans to ease the remaining Covid-19 restrictions on Friday, October 22.
Nphet is due to meet on Monday – after which it will make recommendations on the easing of restrictions against the backdrop of concerns over the rising number of new Covid-19 cases alongside a rise in the hospitalisation of those who have been infected by the virus.
The Cabinet will meet on Tuesday to consider Nphet’s advice, and decide whether to continue with plans to allow to ease more restrictions.
This means businesses and workers will have to wait over the weekend for clarity on whether they should continue with plans to return to work on a phased basis, as has been Government policy since September.
There was significant political backlash against Dr Glynn’s intervention, with one senior minister pointing out he was telling people they should work from home while filming a social media video in his own office on a Friday afternoon.
The same minister said they feared “another overreaction” from Nphet.
Another senior minister said they presumed Dr Glynn “misspoke” in urging people to work from home for the next four or five months.
“Unions needs to be able to give their members clear public health advice so it’s important that the advice doesn’t change suddenly in a video on Twitter,” the minister added.
There are fears in Fine Gael that Mr Martin will accept Nphet advice even if it recommends a significant delay in easing restrictions.
Questioned on whether the Department of Health has changed its policy on foot of Dr Glynn’s comments, a spokesperson said: “The Work Safety Protocol is the current policy.”
But she would not expand further on what this meant in the context of a senior Nphet member telling people to work from home into the new year.
Meanwhile, Irish Small and Media Enterprise chief executive Neil McDonnell said Dr Glynn’s comments risked sparking confusion.
“We agree with most of what Dr Glynn said about rising case numbers, but his remarks about ‘working from home where possible’ may cause confusion ahead of the Nphet meeting next week and the planned lifting of other restrictions next weekend,” he said.
Richard Guiney, chief executive of retail and hospitality representative group Dublin Town, said Dr Glynn’s statement was disappointing.
Mr Guiney said it would be hugely significant for the retail and hospitality sectors if office workers were told to stay at home.
“We do need our workers back,” he said. “We’re conscious that Covid numbers have increased but would like to understand the reasoning.”
General secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Patricia King said it supported the deputy CMO in his urging of everyone who could work from home to do so. “We have to continue to be cautious, given the levels of transmission and hospitalisation and the unremitting strain on our health workers,” Ms King said.
Separately, it is likely Digital Covid Certificates will still be necessary for inside hospitality beyond October 22. There is a growing acceptance across Government that Covid passes will not remain in place.
The passes may also be used to allow nightclubs and other live entertainment venues fully reopen. However, a decision has not been made and the issue will also be considered by Nphet next week.