Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Labour leader Alan Kelly clashed in the Dáil about a difference of opinion over who said what in a private off-microphone conversation in the Dáil chamber on Tuesday evening.
Mr Martin told Mr Kelly “I learned something about you yesterday that I will not forget and that will govern our relationship from here on”.
Mr Kelly responded: “If you want to call me a liar, call me a liar.”
The Taoiseach told him to “cool it, keep your voice down”.
The disagreement arose after Mr Kelly said the Taoiseach told him in the chamber that teachers would not have to restrict their movements for five days in accordance with the new Covid household contact rules.
Mr Martin strongly denied this, however, claiming Mr Kelly misconstrued his remarks.
The heated exchanges came during a bad-tempered Leaders’ Questions session at which Opposition leaders condemned the Government’s response to the crisis in Covid-19 cases.
Mr Kelly said a school principal in Mr Martin’s constituency “had to tell parents not to send their kids to school yesterday”. He claimed the Minister for Education had “gone Awol”.
“You’re so embarrassed by the Minister for Health that he hasn’t been seen at a press conference with you for over a year.”
The Labour leader called on the Taoiseach to confirm remarks by the Minister for Education that antigen testing would be introduced in schools by the end of the week. Mr Kelly said he had been raising the issue for a year – “they [antigen tests] are not a panacea” but they could help, he added.
Mr Kelly said antigen tests should be given free until January 1st and then subsidised, and he called for booster vaccines for teachers, SNAs and early years staff”.
“Are you going to consider taking over private hospitals again because I’ve never ever seen the HSE as worried as they are now.”
Mr Martin said that “in terms of the nature of the engagements, I’ve never seen the likes of it before in terms of what transpired as I was engaged here, you came along over here”.
The Taoiseach said he wanted to put on the record what Mr Kelly had asked in the Dáil immediately before their private conversation.
Mr Martin said it was about “given the complicated RSV cases, causal cases – will the Government consider prioritising frontline workers such as gardaí, retail workers, transport workers, most of our teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs . . . primarily so the school system doesn’t fall over.”
“You asked nothing about household contacts . . . nothing at all,” the Taoiseach said, adding but that after a “30 or 40 second engagement you scamper off and tell your education spokesman who tweet something and it’s reported. It’s extraordinary”.
Mr Kelly intervened and said “if you want to call me a liar, call me a liar”.
The Taoiseach said “I’m just putting it straight now . . . I never said that.”
Mr Kelly said he had “never come in here and accused someone of telling porkies” but that he did ask the Taoiseach about the five-day rule because teachers would be additionally affected.
“And your reply to me was ‘No, teachers are exempt’. You know that. I know you’re very annoyed about it. Right? Because you messed up. This wasn’t a total misconstruction,” the Labour leader said.
Mr Kelly also told Mr Martin: “You’re also the Taoiseach that said the banks weren’t bailed out,” adding people could make up their own mind on who they believed.
Earlier Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said there was a lack of planning over the response to rising Covid cases even though the Government had plenty of warning.
“You have effectively shut down the nightclubs with less than 48 hours’ notice and no consultation,” she said. The Government closed the sector down with the “flick of a switch” three weeks after opening it, she said, adding it was “not a runner” not to reopen the pandemic unemployment payment.
Ms McDonald said the Taoiseach would “throw thousands of workers under the bus” because of poor management and “lack of leadership”.
But the Taoiseach said she had consistently taken a “divisive approach” on Covid and exploited the pandemic for party purposes.
Mr Martin insisted the Government had not shut down the economy but had ensured businesses and hospitality had opened despite 4,000 cases a day. The Government would continue to support businesses through the pandemic supports they provided, he said.