Former health minister Simon Harris has described his four years at the helm of the Health Department as the “most intense, difficult and frustrating” job he could have ever imagined.
He said being health minister as the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the country was a “frightening and intense time”.
Mr Harris said: “I loved being health minister, people look at me like I have eight heads when I say that but I actually loved being health minister.
“It was the most intense, difficult and frustrating job I could ever have imagined but every single day you could see good things happening.”
His comments come as the country prepares to enter fresh lockdown restrictions amid spiralling infection numbers.
Curbs will be phased in over the Christmas period. The Government has warned they could be in place for months.
It was a very frightening time. It was a frightening time for a couple of reasons, principally the fact that we knew this virus was coming into our country and we could do nothing to stop it arrivingSimon Harris
The Fine Gael minister said he had gone from packing up his office after the general election in February presuming his tenure as health minister was coming to an end to being in charge of the health department in the midst of a pandemic.
He said: “Within three weeks, we had gone from a situation of very inconclusive general election results, very difficult election results for my party, and me effectively packing up the office in the Department of Health, not quite knowing what was going to happen next. To a situation where I was talking to our chief medical officer and deputy chief medical officer about this pandemic that was getting nearer by the day.”
After the first case was confirmed in Ireland, he said “the numbers didn’t just increase, the numbers exponentially increased”.
“It was a very frightening time. It was a frightening time for a couple of reasons, principally the fact that we knew this virus was coming into our country and we could do nothing to stop it arriving,” he said.
“It was an intense time and a time I’m only really beginning to get to think about now that I’m not the health minister. Even now, it’s hard to think about it properly because we’re still very much in the midst of it.”
Mr Harris, now higher education minister, said he “always wondered” about whether the Government should have acted quicker when it came to locking down the country in March.
He added it would have been “ineffective” for Ireland to have acted unilaterally given the two jurisdictions on the island.
Being honest, this is really beginning to get in on top of all of us. Know youâre not alone in feeling that. But please know this - there is hope. For the first time ever, we enter restrictions with vaccines arriving. We just have to keep each other safe in the meantime #COVID19— Simon Harris TD (@SimonHarrisTD) December 22, 2020
“I remember looking down the barrel of a camera in the Department of Health on the Six One News announcing that the Ireland/Italy rugby game wouldn’t go ahead and I equally remember a number of commentators coming out and said it was an overreaction,” he said.
He believes Ireland was not in a position to close down the country like New Zealand had.
“It’s not New Zealand geographically and we’re part of the European Union. We’re in a country where the free movement of people across the European Union is a key tenet of being European,” he said.
“I think it would have been ineffective for Ireland to unilaterally have acted.
“The advice to me was that there was no need to take that action at that time.”
Mr Harris said “sadly” in many ways the fundamentals of the Covid-19 situation in Ireland had not changed since he began talking to the public about the matter at the end of February.
“I can’t mislead people the first few months and 2021 are going to be rocky, they are going to be bumpy,” he warned.
“The difference is for the first time as we’re all being asked to do things as citizens that are difficult, painful and hard, for the first time, we’d be doing that alongside people in our country, starting with the most vulnerable, getting a life-saving vaccine that will protect them overnight.”