Miriam Lord: Not so splendid self-isolation for hapless Cabinet

Just because this hapless Government can’t catch a break doesn’t mean it can’t catch Covid.

And in the most chaotic of ways, obviously.

After all, it must be good at something.

Ordinarily, you wouldn’t expect the sudden abandonment of parliament because the Minister for Health fears he may have contracted the coronavirus and the entire Cabinet has to self-isolate. But not with this Government, which is best viewed from behind a sofa with splayed fingers across the eyes.

Since its formation, it has endured a stratospheric streak of bad luck and debacle, lurching from controversy to calamity on an impressively regular basis.

And so another day, another Dáil week begins. Surely things can’t get any worse?

“Hold me coat!” coughs Stephen Donnelly, signalling the start of yet another spell of mortification for Micheál Martin and his band of beaten down Fianna Fáil Ministers.

They had been hoping to turn a corner on Tuesday. And they did – right into the path of an oncoming truck.

Business as usual, really.

It was supposed to be different this time with the launch of the much trumpeted roadmap for “Living with Covid”. A lot of planning went into it, with a set-piece planned for Dublin Castle featuring the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Health. As it turned out, all they needed to do was email the document to themselves.

The ink was scarcely dry on this blueprint when they had to repurpose it for a new audience – the entire Cabinet. Two members hors de combat by the end of the day and the rest on tenterhooks waiting for test results to return.

“It’s literally one giant Cabinet clusterf***!” declared an Opposition deputy, gobsmacked.

The launch wasn’t great. It was supposed to steady public confidence with clear advice for the Covid situation in the coming months. It was assembled by a crack squad of existing and freshly recruited elite communication specialists. They delivered a triumph, if a confusing sludge of management speak and little else was what you were after.

The occasion was graced by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste and in the middle of them the Minister for Health, who looked a little flushed. The third leg of this increasingly rickety coalition stool – we used to mean that in the furniture sense, not so sure now – was absent. Green leader Eamon Ryan was at home self-isolating, which is what Micheál Martin probably wished he was doing by the end of yet another disastrous day.

The Taoiseach took Leaders’ Questions at lunchtime, unaware of the latest shambles about to break over his head. His overworked “framework” plan – with its three core pillars, four “Ws” and five levels – was not received well by the Opposition. This didn’t please Micheál, who seemed hurt by the reaction, taking the unsurprising criticism personally.

Labour’s Alan Kelly summed up the lack of enthusiasm for the plan, it’s promised clear and informative measures failing to impress on several fronts. “This is the day we were all waiting for,” said a disappointed Kelly.

Although he didn’t remain disappointed for long. At the end of a bizarre evening in the Dáil, the only disappointment for the Opposition would have been running out of popcorn.

The Taoiseach did most of the talking in Dublin Castle. The Tánaiste read a speech and said little else. This was definitely Micheál’s gig. Leo must be so relieved.

Leaders’ Questions came and went. And then, at some stage between his time in the chamber and leaving for his office to prepare for his live interview on the Six One News, a communication arrived for Micheál Martin from his Minister for Health.

Its import was repeated again and again in the hours which followed.

“Stephen Donnelly is unwell.”

He was off home to self-isolate. He hadn’t been feeling well during a day which started with an early morning Cabinet meeting followed by that press conference with the Government’s two main men.

One can only imagine Micheál’s reaction when he got the news.

“Aaaaah, feck!” might be the polite summary.

Leo Varadkar’s reaction? As a medical doctor he will have been most concerned for his Cabinet colleague and then taken two smug pills washed down by a warming cup of smirk, just to be on the safe side.

Meanwhile, Minister of State for Europe Thomas Byrne was also self-isolating. A personal tragedy for Thomas, as when the Ceann Comhairle broke the bombshell news in late afternoon that the Dáil was shutting up shop as the Cabinet had to go into isolation, word emerged later that business would resume with a team of junior ministerial Galacticos stepping into the breach in the absence of their restricted seniors.

At precisely 5.14pm, Seán O’Fearghaíl broke the shocking news to the chamber (a handful of TDs were present, waiting for health questions to begin, and wondering about the delay). A senior Oireachtas official arrived and spoke hurriedly to the Ceann Comhairle.

He calmly imparted his “very serious information” as ears pricked up and eyes switched to monitors around the campus.

“I’m told that arising out of events today the Cabinet must now self-isolate, therefore the possibility of proceeding with business does not arise and the House stands adjourned, I suspect until Tuesday next or until I’m directed by the Taoiseach to reconvene the House.”

And that was it. The mornings confusion supplanted with far greater confusion.

Political correspondents rushed to Twitter. TDs and Ministers were not given any advance warning of this move. Justice Minister Helen McEntee was on the radio when she heard it. Later in the evening, when the madness died down and the Ministers of State were sent in as subs, deputies complained bitterly about being left in the dark.

Another fiasco in the communications department.

“Pol Cors on Twitter knew more. How embarrassing is that!” railed Sinn Féin’s Pádraig McLochlainn.

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach had to go out on the Six One News for his live interview in the knowledge that the country was laughing its head off at his latest predicament. He restricted his movements to one side of the fountain, which had been turned off as a mark of respect to his Government’s credibility.

Dear God, we thought, as Micheál spoke a mile a minute, hands flying, voice raised. “He looked very pink in the face. A bit peaky.” He was drinking a lot of water at the launch, and before he left the Dáil chamber, we noticed him draining his paper cup of its contents.

He sounded like a man fighting for his political future, once more the victim of unforeseen events not of his making.

The man just can’t catch a break.

The Minister for Agriculture appeared later in the night to take questions. Perhaps the news was good on the test front, for the seniors were out again.

Then again, Charlie McConologue must have been nervous, given what happened to his predecessors . . .