Claire Byrne applies the pressure, and Eamon Ryan snaps

Radio: The interview underscores how quickly the optimistic mood has disappeared

Claire Byrne: the RTÉ Radio 1 host is an effective interviewer

Claire Byrne: the RTÉ Radio 1 host is an effective interviewer

 

After hearing her political guests vainly try to make sense of the latest Covid bombshell, Claire Byrne has a simple message for listeners. “So we’re advising people here this morning to go on the gin, that’s what we’re doing,” the host bluntly counsels on Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays).

This may be an understandable if uncharacteristic response to the sobering news emerging on Wednesday morning, but any fears that the reliably sensible Byrne has gone rogue can be safely put aside. 

In fact, Byrne is making a wry comment on the advice from the dermatologist Rosemary Coleman that people with rosacea might consider switching from wine to cocktails to help avoid their blushes, so to speak. Far from recommending that we all go on the lash, she distances herself from the suggestion. When Coleman jokes that her host run an item on the best juniper-based tipples, Byrne cautions: “We’ll be in trouble.”

When Claire Byrne notes that Nphet wants restrictions to be enforced, Eamon Ryan shows a rare but revealing flash of irritation. ‘It’s not Nphet’s job to tell us how to do it,’ he snaps 

Like we’re not already. Byrne’s interview with Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan about the sudden stalling of indoor hospitality underscores how quickly the hitherto optimistic mood has disappeared, along with any nagging suspicions that the Government might be on top of the situation. Not always the most accomplished media performer, the Green Party leader actually sounds pretty composed. But, under pressure from Byrne’s questioning, he can’t dispel the notion that the National Public Health Emergency Team’s unexpected advice to introduce vaccine passes for indoor dining has left the Government in shock and confusion.

Ryan tries to put a brave face on Nphet’s blindsiding of the Government’s strategy. Showing a flair for understatement, he admits it will be “no small challenge” to deliver on the recommendation that unvaccinated people be excluded from pubs and restaurants – unless of course they work there. Byrne focuses on the latter “contradiction”, as well as the apparent disconnect between Government and advisory board, pointedly remarking that no Nphet member would appear on the show to explain its reasoning. Indeed, when the host notes that the board wants restrictions to be enforced, Ryan shows a rare but revealing flash of irritation. “It’s not Nphet’s job to tell us how to do it,” he snaps. 

The more Byrne points out the inconsistencies inherent in the new advice, the more her guest effectively concedes that the Government hasn’t a clue how to proceed. When the presenter notes that a suggestion to allow children under six into restaurants means she would have to leave two of her children outside, Ryan says these conundrums prove it’s correct for the Government “not to make a call” for several weeks more. Our indecision is final, indeed. 

Ryan is in an impossible position, trying to square public-health imperatives with daunting practicalities. He also sounds empathetic, saying he “shares the impatience” of unvaccinated younger adults, such as his own children. (In contrast, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar sounds as though he’s reciting from a script when he proffers similarly regretful sentiments on Morning Ireland earlier.) But when Byrne asks about the prospects for young people during the summer, the Minister can only muster the possibility that they “may” be vaccinated sooner than expected. “We can and will manage this,” he adds forlornly, a hollow-sounding assertion after Byrne’s incisive interrogation. 

Drivetime’s hosts strike an inquisitive tone throughout, rather than seeking to haze guests with awkward questions. It’s another indication of the gravity of the situation

The news doesn’t improve greatly on Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), but given what a bearpit the programme can be, the mood is grimly resigned rather than acrimonious. Interviewed by Sarah McInerney, the People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett thinks it “reasonable” to pause reopening in the face of the Delta variant’s spread. Meanwhile Patricia Callan of Drinks Ireland, normally a safe bet for on-air argument, sounds reasonably satisfied with Government commitment to work with the industry. Callan also repeatedly notes that Ireland is an “outlier” on indoor hospitality, a truism set to enter the Covid catechism of cliche.

Minds are further concentrated by her cohost Cormac Ó hEadhra’s stark discussion of rising case numbers in Scotland, which suggest Nphet isn’t being alarmist for the sake of it. Ó hEadhra also hears about the pandemic’s negative impact on mental health, as he talks to the psychiatrist Anne Doherty about a new survey pointing to a surge in cases. Doherty says that where she works, at the Mater hospital, “we’ve certainly seen a big increase in presentation of cases”, including depression and self-harm. While the Covid crisis is driving the surge, matters are exacerbated by Ireland’s comparatively low expenditure on mental-health services – a familiar story.

The situation is particularly difficult for people with psychotic illnesses, prompting Ó hEadhra to wonder if this increases the risk of violence to others. When Doherty points out that such patients are much more likely to be victims rather perpetrators, the presenter strikes a contrite note, explaining how people “jump” on stories of such violence in the media, “as I have done”. It shows that, for all his cheerfully belligerent approach, Ó hEadhra is a nuanced broadcaster. In fact, Drivetime’s hosts strike an inquisitive tone throughout, rather than seeking to haze guests with awkward questions. It’s another indication of the gravity of the situation.

The infectious-diseases consultant Paddy Mallon seems baffled by Nphet’s resistance to antigen testing as a mitigation measure: PCR tests are more accurate but cost 10 times as much, as well as their results taking much longer

Ultimately, the most sceptical voice is that of the infectious-diseases consultant Paddy Mallon. Speaking to McInerney, Mallon is clear about the threat posed by Delta, while observing that “the dynamics are slower” than with previous variants. He seems baffled by Nphet’s resistance to antigen testing as a mitigation measure. The consultant says that although PCR tests are more accurate, they cost at least 10 times as much as their antigen equivalent, as well as taking much longer for results. “The concept of testing as a risk-reduction tool is to do it as close to an event as possible,” Mallon says, suggesting PCR tests aren’t “fit for purpose” in this role. 

It’s as concise and cogent an argument for the introduction of antigen testing as you’ll hear. As for the wider scenario, Mallon echoes Eamon Ryan’s opinion about the difficulty faced by the Government to deliver on Nphet’s advice. “As a country we’re really ill-prepared for this,” Mallon says, before delivering a stark verdict: “It’s going to be a challenging few weeks.” Drink, anyone?

Moment of the Week

With so many broadcasts now done from home, glitches have become more common, but Monday morning produces a rich crop of domestic mishaps. First, Gavin Jennings’s discussion with the broadcaster’s political correspondent Paul Cunningham on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1) is interrupted by barking in the background. “I think there’s an opinion emerging behind you,” Jennings remarks about Cunningham’s canine companion. Later, on Lyric FM, Marty Whelan’s chat with the cellist Gerald Peregrine is disturbed by a loudly chiming doorbell. “Are you expecting a parcel?” the host asks. Peregrine replies that it’s his cellist aunt Moya O’Grady ringing the bell. “Open the door. Let her in,” commands Whelan, echoing Paul McCartney’s refrain. Alas for lovers of on-air bloopers, someone else answers the door.

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