The Fine Gael parliamentary party has backed Leo Varadkar's plan for senior representatives to enter into talks on government formation. 

While informal talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have already taken place, last night's decision puts those negotiations on a formal footing. 

However, the party did not go so far as to elevate the talks into a process of negotiating a programme for government - apparently due to the need to focus on the immense challenge posed by Covid-19. 

In a tele-conference call, the TDs, Senators and MEPs agreed that their negotiators should report back to party colleagues with any developments.

Last week Mr Varadkar appointed a negotiating team compromised of Simon Coveney, Paschal Donohoe, Hildegarde Naughton and Heather Humphreys.

He also appointed Richard Bruton as head of a so-called Reference Group to ensure that the party's policies were advanced in any negotiations. 

After repeatedly stating his desire to lead Fine Gael into Opposition, Mr Varadkar changed tack last week stating "the public health emergency posed by Covid-19 marks a dramatic change in context."  

However, the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting suggests that the scale of the challenge posed by the coronoavirus means that any talks on Government formation will take second place to dealing with the immediacy of the crisis.  

Mr Varadkar told his parliamentary party that there will be big increases in positive cases over coming days with increased testing taking place across the country. 

He also said the benefits of social distancing may not be seen for five to ten days.

The Fine Gael leader added that the restrictions on school openings could be extended into April or even May.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane has said that his party would consider any serious proposals regarding a national unity government.

He said the party wanted to be in government and had spoken at length to everyone who would speak to it.

However, Mr Cullinane added that he believed Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would continue to rule out the idea of a national government.