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Ireland’s government on Tuesday night sharply criticized EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan after a TV interview that only inflamed questions about his breaches of coronavirus rules in the past weeks.
Hogan’s appearance on the broadcaster RTÉ was intended to lay to rest a ballooning scandal that centers on how Hogan and other Irish bigwigs last week attended a packed a golf society dinner in defiance of pandemic regulations.
Instead, only hours after publicly assuring European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that he had fully complied with Ireland’s laws, Hogan landed himself in hot water by insisting upon an apparently incorrect interpretation of rules for people returning from Belgium.
In a statement carried by Irish media, the government of Prime Minister Micheál Martin and deputy premier Leo Varadkar said it was “clear that breaches of public health guidelines were made” by Hogan and added that his “delayed and hesitant release of information undermined public confidence.” Stressing that concerns remained, the leaders added people were “correctly angered by his actions.”
The damning government statement stressed he should have quarantined himself for 14 days on return from Belgium on July 31 — something Hogan disputed in the TV interview. The country’s leaders also said he should never have attended the golf event and should only have visited the locked down county of Kildare for “essential” travel, seemingly querying his need to go there.
Dublin said that it would now await the outcome of a review into Hogan’s conduct by von der Leyen.
Hogan’s peripatetic travels and golf fixtures round Ireland have not only sparked huge anger in a country where much of the population is limiting access to friends and family, but now gives von der Leyen a major political headache.
Under increasing pressure from Dublin, she must decide whether she needs to make a sign of democratic accountability by taking action against one of the most powerful members of her team. Much will depend on whether she believes Hogan misunderstood Ireland’s rules, or whether she reckons he willfully misinterpreted them.
The European Commission president’s spokesperson Dana Spinant told reporters on Monday: “[Von der Leyen] does expect commissioners to comply with the same rules as citizens do.”
Back from Belgium
In the interview on Tuesday evening, Hogan appeared to make a significant error over whether he was obliged to go into quarantine on returning from Belgium.
He repeatedly stressed throughout the interview that because he had tested negative for COVID-19 during an unexpected hospital procedure on August 5, he was freed from the requirement to self-isolate for 14 days after entering the country from Belgium on July 31.
“It’s there in black and white, if you do not have COVID-19 and you’re tested negatively, you are not obliged to self-isolate,” Hogan said, claiming the advice is “clearly stated” on a government website.
“I didn’t put anyone at risk because I had already been tested for COVID-19,” he said.
Hogan admitted that the affair was “a very big embarrassment,” during the interview, but his attempt to show contrition and empathy for the sacrifices made by the Irish people were soon swallowed up in a torrent of confused argumentation about Ireland’s travel advice.
Ireland’s Health Service Executive clarified on Tuesday that the requirement to self-isolate for the full two week period still stands regardless of any COVID-19 test results.
“It can take up to 14 days for the virus to show up in your system after you have been exposed to it,” the HSE said in a tweet.
In the public report he submitted to von der Leyen earlier on Tuesday, the commissioner said he traveled to Dublin to meet Deputy Prime Minister Varadkar on August 12 — within the 14-day period since he returned from Brussels on July 31. He also played golf in Limerick on August 13.
Ireland’s Citizens Information website, which Hogan referred to, does state that a negative test result means: “You do not have to self-isolate any longer.”
However, the same website also mentions a blanket quarantine for returnees: “You are expected to restrict your movements for 14 days after your arrival,” and warns people to “avoid contact with other people and social situations as much as possible.”
On Tuesday night it released a statement to clarify it is “not an official source of government information.”
The website of Ireland’s foreign affairs office also states that travelers returning from high-risk countries such as Belgium should self-isolate for 14 days.
But the Irishman testily pushed back against government-run websites, instead appealing to Irish citizens’ reasonableness.
“Are the state agencies saying that they’re giving wrong information to the citizens?” he asked.
When presented with the 14-day rule by the interviewer, Hogan simply said: “I don’t accept that.”
Reacting to the interview, Pearse Doherty, a member of the Sinn Féin opposition party, said Hogan was “simply wrong.”
“It took me less than 2 minutes on the HSE website to show very clearly that you have to restrict your movements for 14 days even if you have a negative test. Why? Because it can take up to 14 days for the virus to show up in your body. And a commissioner should know this,” he told RTÉ.
The Commission Spokesperson Spinant said von der Leyen was studying Hogan’s account of his movements, but could not comment on when she would reach a conclusion.
Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.