Gavan Reilly: How can you follow a policy when even the Government can’t explain it?

I wrote on these pages a few weeks back about how Fianna Fáil had a misfiring start to its time in government, partly because it had yet to fluff out its communications staff. This may be part of the reason why some of its previous PR fluff-ups keep coming back to haunt it.

It might be a tedious question to ask, but: what is the current travel advice about going to Malta? Some readers may think it’s ‘you can go’. Others might think it’s ‘you are asked not to go, but you can if you want’. Another reader might say, ‘essential travel only’.

The reason there’s such confusion about it is because all of the above are, arguably, true. There are three Government websites with travel advice: the main website, the separate pages run by the Department of Transport, and another by the Department of Foreign Affairs (which is the historical route through which travel advice is issued). It may not be a coincidence that those three Departments are run by ministers from three different parties.

So even though Micheál Martin told me at a press conference last night that people shouldn’t be leaving the country in the first place, the Department of Foreign Affairs has worded its advice specifically so that the Green List countries are explicitly exempt from the blanket advisory to stay in Ireland. Ministers therefore preaching about the need to stay at home and protect Ireland from the coronavirus are contradicting their own written advice.

The rationale behind the new regulations is to enforce the public health advice, but that’s hard to do if the public health advice isn’t clear. If three different Government websites have contradictory advice about whether you can visit Malta, which website is authoritative – and do you run the risk of losing your income by taking the holiday you had already paid for?

That’s another issue on which communications were sub-par, though at least it’s not Fianna Fáil’s doing. Heather Humphreys did nothing to notify the public to a change in the rules around access to the PUP. It has always been the case, codified in law, that those claiming the Dole or the PUP could leave the country for a fortnight’s holiday – so unless they also browsed the Irish Statute Book website before departure they weren’t to know they could lose the payment by travelling, even if self-isolating on return.

Which is another issue: Humphreys claims the new rule is to enforce health advice, but Varadkar said it was because a claimant would not be available to work for two weeks on return. Which is it? Is travelling to Malta still permitted or not? And why are the unemployed considered to be ‘off the market’ for work when housebound, while the Government simultaneously asks the entire workforce (including its own employees) to work from home anyway?

By the way: cutting Cabinet pay by 10% should not let the Government reclaim moral authority. The last Government didn’t gloat when it turned down pay increases to which it was entitled under successive public pay deals – Leo Varadkar’s job carried a salary of €207,590 but he only drew down €185,350. The new Government didn’t explain yesterday that those voluntary pay cuts lapsed when Martin took over… so his 10% deduction still leaves his effective pay at €186,831, higher than his predecessor.

A ‘pay cut’ which actually results in ministers taking home more than the last ones? That’s one communications victory, at least.

Gavan Reilly is the Political Correspondent for Virgin Media and Political Columnist for The Meath Chronicle

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