Caveat: Are we in grip of Nphet-imposed ‘culture of fear’?

Live events industry wants leadership thinking to evolve but danger still lurks

Festival director Melvin Benn: The continued shuttering of the live entertainment industry despite stratospheric Irish vaccination rates is blatantly “wrong” and “unnecessary”. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Festival director Melvin Benn: The continued shuttering of the live entertainment industry despite stratospheric Irish vaccination rates is blatantly “wrong” and “unnecessary”. Photograph: Dave Meehan

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Festival Republic music promoter Melvin Benn may be softly spoken but he has always had a pugnacious streak. So it was little surprise on Wednesday to hear him on RTÉ Radio’s News at One giving the State’s public health advisers a rhetorical punch in the nose. He argued they have created a “culture of fear” that is throttling his industry.

But where does that fear reside? Is it in the people or their leaders?

On paper, Benn’s business does large outdoor gigs in Britain and Ireland. In reality, it operates them only in Britain because it cannot run any here due to Ireland’s uniquely cautious Covid regulations. He has spent much of the last month fighting the cancellation for the second year of the Electric Picnic festival he hoped would bring 70,000 vaccinated revellers to Stradbally in Co Laois.

This week, Benn sounded as if he simply had had enough. He bemoaned a “complete lack of leadership” at political level. He said the continued shuttering of the live entertainment industry despite stratospheric Irish vaccination rates was blatantly “wrong” and “unnecessary”. It makes him “angry”.

He compared it to the pantomime injustice of Thierry Henry’s 2009 handball-that-never-was against the Irish football team. English people have a fair insight into the woe of that event for Irish people because they still have the iconic image of Maradona’s hand of God at the 1986 World Cup seared into their brains.

Henry’s handball cost Ireland a much-needed place at a World Cup at the nadir of our last financial and social depression. It was a little more nationally seminal than this year’s cancellation of a gig in the mud in the midlands. But we’ll allow Benn the rhetorical flourish. His industry is hurting and it shows.

Finger of blame

“Nphet [the National Public Health Emergency Team] has created a culture of fear and there is no political leadership challenging that or moving it on . . . the whole culture of fear is wrong,” he told RTÉ’s Bryan Dobson.

In pointing the finger of blame at Nphet and, by implication, Tony Holohan, our chief medical officer, Benn is treading where many other vested interests in business have gone before him during this pandemic.

As an aside, “vested interest” is usually considered to be a loaded term but it does not have to be that way. To have a vested interest in a particular outcome doesn’t automatically mean that what you are saying is wrong or illegitimate. It is possible to be selfish and correct at the same time.

The vested interests that have gone before Benn include retailers, who last year expressed “deep concern” over Nphet’s push for Level 5 restrictions that shut shops. They also include aviation companies, such as when Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary admonished Nphet last month for promoting “bogus” theories about “scariants” such as Delta (the jury is still not in on who was more correct on that one, but O’Leary looks to be one-nil down deep into the second half, as Nphet was correct when it said Delta was a game-changer). Another vested interest was the hospitality sector, which has battled Nphet several times.

Nphet is clearly opposed to loosening restrictions for live events or it would have happened by now. Who knows whether it is correct or not? I certainly do not. But the kind of doomsayers who unquestioningly suck up every screed of public health warnings have yet to be proven right on the UK’s summer reopening. Its latest virus surge peaked a month ago and the UK’s sky has not fallen in.

Maybe Nphet is similarly over-cautious here. Or maybe it isn’t and the worst is coming.

Commercial damage

The other side of the coin is that Ireland’s infection rates are the fourth-highest in Europe, which ought to provide a decent rationale for anybody urging caution even if it damages businesses such as Benn’s.

With 493 infections per 100,000 people over the last 14 days, Ireland is up in the Champions League spots in the European table, with only France, Spain and Cyprus doing as poorly. Or does that mean we are in the relegation zone? But when it comes to death rates, we are decidedly mid-table, presumably due to the startlingly strong uptake of vaccines here.

The corollary of pointing to Ireland’s huge infection rates as justification for maintaining über caution is that, when you think about it, this strategic approach appears to have yielded little by way of a bounty so far. The evidence for that resides in the same lofty position that the State holds in the league table of infection rates in Europe, where almost everybody else chilled their beans about live outdoor events months ago. If our approach is so clearly superior, why is Ireland still in such a sticky spot relative to others?

Benn can credibly argue the toss that there is a culture of fear in the ranks of Nphet or the State’s political leaders, who dare not go against it for fear of inviting disaster as they did almost nine months ago. But the people and businesses of Ireland appear to be slowly leaving some of their fear behind.

Freaking out

The purchasing manager indices published by the major banks show that business confidence across several sectors is holding up well this summer, despite the Delta surge. Central Statistics Office data for June showed services output up 8 per cent. KBC’s consumer confidence index softened ever so slightly in July, but is still only marginally below its two-year high from June.

What all of that means is that Irish businesses and consumers are not freaking out as much as they have done during previous major surges of the virus. Nowhere near as much, in fact. The vaccines are not just a retaining wall against illness and infection. They also seem to be holding back some of our very Celtic inbuilt propensity for neurosis whenever the stakes are raised.

Yet that could change somewhat if Delta, like a viral Floyd Mayweather, keeps on walking us down in the ring. It is keeping up the pressure on society and the economy without ever throwing a haymaker. That kind of half-combat can eventually wear you down, because it becomes impossible to relax. Until that happens, the cliched economic and social “feelgood factor” will not properly return.

Nphet now believes the Delta peak may not come until early autumn. What happens after that in winter is not yet obvious. But what is the point in being afraid of all that for now, when the opportunity is there to breathe a little? Maybe Benn has a point about the futility of maintaining a culture of fear.

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