If we are forced into a Level Five lockdown after all, the Tánaiste’s attack on Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan will seem ill-advised indeed.
When Leo Varadkar left RTÉ last Monday night week after his extraordinary performance on Claire Byrne Live, he was – as is protocol – escorted out through the foyer to the main door by Jon Williams, managing director of RTÉ News. According to onlookers, the Tánaiste turned to Williams and asked “Did I go a bit too far?”
Mr Varadkar had been scathing in his reaction to the advice given to the Government by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET). The CMO had advised that, in light of soaring Coronavirus figures, the country should be placed in full lockdown Level 5, replicating the measures taken in March.
The Government chose, for the first time in the pandemic, not to follow NPHET’s advice, moving the country to Level 3 instead, in essence closing each county for non-essential external travel, and restricting restaurants and pubs to outdoor service only.
“The problem that we had with the proposal … was that we didn’t feel that it had been thought through properly,” the Tánaiste told Claire Byrne. When asked if he had confidence in NPHET, he replied: “I have confidence in NPHET to dispense public health advice, that is what they do, they don’t advise the public, they advise the Government, and the Government decides.”
Varadkar, while throwing red meat to the Blueshirt base, was also giving voice to extreme frustration and irritation felt by many at senior levels in Government at what was perceived as an attempt by NPHET to bounce the country into a full lockdown.
One Government source described the chain of events from the previous Friday “when we were told Level 3 was not warranted as the epidemiological evidence wasn’t there” to Saturday “the day they said that, with no mention of any Level 4 or 5 but just NPHET meeting because the numbers went up so much” to Sunday with “rumours in the afternoon of Level 4” and then “the Big Bang in the letter, Level 5, leaked”.
Dr Holohan had insisted that the leak hadn’t come from him, but either way, the damage was done – if perhaps that damage did suit some in Leinster House – and the Government made its big show of We’re In Charge. The tensions between Government and NPHET had been growing for some time, and as Pat Leahy put it in the Irish Times, it’s not that the Government isn’t still listening to NPHET, it’s just that it’s also listening now to other voices too, the loudest of them in the business sector.
Varadkar described NPHET to Claire Byrne as “very good people, 40 of them, but all coming from medical or scientific or civil service backgrounds, none of those people would have faced being on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment yesterday, none of them would have had to tell someone that they were losing their job, and none of them would have had to shutter a business for the last time.”
It would be impossible not to empathise with business-owners already at the pin of their collar and dreading a fresh lockdown, but the country became immediately and evenly split in a “lives versus livelihoods” debate as polarised as anything seen in the days of Saipan.
Concerns about business were no doubt to the forefront of Mattie McGrath TD’s mind when he slammed NPHET for what he called the “irresponsible manner in which it has leaked its recommendations”, calling it “detrimental to the business community and wider society”.
In comments captured on video by Ciara Phelan, Irish Mirror political correspondent, the Tipperary TD went on to describe Dr Tony Holohan as “riding back like John Wayne with his six guns swinging around ‘I’m going to close down the whole country’. Was he with the WHO (World Health Organisation) for the last couple of months listening to them, or where was he?”
NPHET was not elected by anybody, he said, adding that “it’s a rotten state of affairs and people are sick of it. There’s no layperson in there. There’s no businessperson in there. There’s no community person in there.”
McGrath later apologised to Dr Holohan, who has spent the past months on a leave of absence while caring for his wife as she receives palliative care for terminal cancer.
Comedian Oliver Callan parodied McGrath, asking “Why are there so many medical people inside in NPHET? Why isn’t there a priest or a publican or a bookie on the NPHET?”
NPHET is due to meet this Thursday, at a time when Dr Holohan has described Covid-19 as “now thriving”. NPHET is expected to recommend moving the border counties to Level 4, as the North looks set for another lockdown, and there is growing disquiet that Level 3 does not appear to be working in Dublin, where the incidence of the virus had appeared to stabilize last week, but since Saturday in and around 200 cases a day have been recorded.
It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that if the once-and-future Taoiseach – not exactly a man given at the best of times to self-doubt – wondered himself whether he might have gone “a bit too far”, then that’s because even he was unable to avoid the suspicion that – in rejecting NPHET’s advice – this government has taken the gamble of its life and it is doing so with human lives.
Napoleon Bonaparte never did say he would rather have lucky generals than smart generals, but – as with a lot of things – it’s reached “print the legend” status. While nobody could, in good faith, wish the Irish Government ill in its handling of Covid-19, rejecting NPHET’s advice last week may not have been very smart. And – so far – this government hasn’t exactly been lucky.
If the figures continue to go the way they have been going, and we’re eventually forced into a full lockdown Level 5 anyway, the Tánaiste – and Michéal Martin, the man he regularly seems to forget is his boss – will be rightly asked why we didn’t do that last week, before things got out of control.
Last week saw one contribution which was quite chilling.
Dr Gabriel Scally, public health expert and visiting Professor of Public Health at the University of Bristol, was talking to Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1 the morning after the Tánaiste’s outburst, and he addressed the notion that “we’re just going to have to live with this”, a “common-sense” statement beloved by libertarians and some of the loudest voices in the business community.
“There are siren voices of fringe experts who are saying ‘We’ll just let the virus go and we’ll find a way of living with it’. Well some people will live with it, but a lot of people will die with it.”
Thursday will tell a lot.