SIMON Harris has warned critics to lay off students — while urging young people to party safely — as Ireland is engulfed by the dreaded second wave of Covid-19.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Irish Sun, the Higher Education Minister hits out at the “complete bull” stereotypes that students are ignoring health rules following wild scenes in Galway, Limerick and Cork.
He also acknowledged the blunders surrounding the “outdated” nursing homes, the new Government’s shaky start, and says he won’t ‘shut up’ about Covid-19.
He also reveals he hasn’t set foot inside a pub since the pandemic began.
Minister Harris believes students “can’t live under a rock” and urged young people to party safely as he vowed: “This isn’t what your whole college experience will look like.”
He was told about the costly Leaving Cert results blunder by Education Minister Norma Foley last Friday and describes the mistake as “a kick in the teeth for students”.
Students dominated the headlines this week — even before the predicted grades scandal broke — after hundreds of young people ignored Covid-19 health guidelines at parties.
Gardai have been forced to break up dozens of house parties in the three cities as students celebrate their first week of college.
Some 11 students in Cork have since been suspended for breaching Covid health guidelines, with one senator even calling for the army to step in to stop the street parties.
But Harris has been left furious at the party animal stereotype created of students who he believes have been among the worst impacted by the pandemic.
He said: “Young people have suffered a lot and there’s this narrative emerging of you see a group of students and people try to stereotype all students — and it’s complete bull.
“It’s unfair. There were no students in Clifden at Golfgate. Different people in different age groups make mistakes from time to time, will slip up — and it has to be called out.
RITES OF PASSAGE GONE
“What happened in Galway was called out by students’ unions but it’s not representative of all students.
“These people have suffered. We talk about the calculated grades, the cancelled Leaving Certs, the debs, the graduation, losing the part-time job, not being able to go on the J1 — all of these things that are rites of passage for many people. They’re gone.”
However, Minister Harris believes Ireland is “in the grips of a second wave” of the virus and is urging students to socialise in small groups instead of throwing big parties.
He said: “You can’t live under a rock. This virus mightn’t go away any time soon. You can’t say, ‘don’t see friends, don’t see your family.’
“I’m backing the USI campaign of the three Ks — keep it safe, keep it small and keep your distance. So, yes, meet up. But please, just meet up in a small number of people.”
He added: “When I started talking about Covid in February and March, we were all hoping this was something that would only be with us for a few months. It’s not.
“It’s been with us for six months and will probably be with us for, who knows, another year or two maybe.
“We do need to remember that there will be a point in time when we move beyond Covid.
“If you are starting college now, for the next three or four years this is what the first semester looks like — or maybe the first year — but it’s not what your whole college experience will look like.”
Minister Harris told the Irish Sun that he hasn’t been to a pub since the pandemic began as he is making a big effort to try and keep his number of close contacts small.
The Wicklow TD is a college drop-out having left DIT’s Journalism and French course after three years to pursue a career in politics.
He wants to return to college to finish his degree in the future — but claims he’s too busy to return to the books at the moment.
He said: “I went to college but I never completed my degree. I did Journalism and French for three years and then politics took over accidentally.
“I only have a little bit to do. There’s been many times I’ve tried to do it but being Health Minister for the last four years didn’t give me the chance.
“I don’t have any current plans because I don’t have any time, but I absolutely intend to finish it. I really enjoyed studying journalism. The skills that you get in journalism really stand to you in politics.”
Opposition TDs have criticised the former Health Minister for speaking too much about Covid-19 and claimed he’s getting in the way of his successor Stephen Donnelly.
Labour leader Alan Kelly even labelled Harris the “emeritus Minister for Health”.
However, the Fine Gael Minister brushed off the criticism.
He said: “Alan is really good for the one-liners. I have a huge amount of time for Alan Kelly and I get the point he’s making that I still talk about Covid — but I make no apology for that.
“I have no intention of shutting up talking about Covid. I think it would be pretty ridiculous if I did.
“The Health Minister has a really important job to do — but I think every member of the Government should be talking about Covid.”
Asked if he would rather have stayed on as Health Minister, Harris says that after four-and-a-half years in the job, he believes fresh eyes are “not the worst thing”.
But he talks about the strong connection he has with people in the Department of Health — some of whom he “saw a hell of a lot more than my family for six months”.
The Fine Gael TD wants Ireland to keep some of the Coronavirus health infrastructure in place after the pandemic is over so the country never has to start from scratch again in another emergency.
Minister Harris agrees the Government’s first few months in charge have been “messy” but claims the three parties are starting to “bed in” — with the upcoming budget the coalition’s next challenge.
Asked if he has any regrets from his time in charge of the State’s Covid-19 response, Harris confessed that Ireland could have tested more people earlier on in the pandemic — particularly in nursing homes.
He also wants to never again see a situation where the State is dependent on other countries such as China for PPE supplies.
When grilled on the high level of deaths in nursing homes at the beginning of the pandemic, he said: “What’s happened in nursing homes has been beyond tragic.
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“What I hope comes out of this is a real discussion for how we care for older people. In my own view, maybe the nursing home model is out of date.
“One of the things I’m annoyed that I didn’t get finished in my time in health — but I know this Government will do — is the statutory home care scheme.
“Why do we say to people at a certain age you need to move to some big house with loads of other people and live away from your community? If you look at other European countries, the nursing support comes to you.”