Operation Covid Nation: ‘What the actual f**k?’

RTÉ is right to make a show about coping with coronavirus. But scrap the trivialising name

When details began to circulate of a new RTÉ lifestyle show with the title Operation Covid Nation, many of us assumed it was a joke. It was so tacky, tasteless and unimaginative. Well done, whoever came up with it, we said; was it Waterford Whispers?

But, no, Operation Covid Nation is apparently a thing. A thing that will be on our screens within a few weeks as RTÉ, in this time of crisis, rolls out the Operation Transformation Expanded Universe. Let’s just hope nuclear war doesn’t break out in the near future, or we can look forward to Operation Radiation Nation. Once you’ve gone there, as RTÉ assuredly has with Covid Nation, there is surely no going back.

"The plan is… we are bringing Operation Transformation back," Kathryn Thomas, its presenter, told Ray D'Arcy on RTÉ Radio 1. "It is going to be on screens in mid-April. We're calling it Operation Covid Nation. This was a conversation that happened between the HSE, RTÉ, VIP" – Vision Independent Productions, the company that makes the programme – "myself and the experts on the show."

Someone at the meeting between RTÉ, the HSE and VIP should have cleared their throat and suggested that the name didn't strike exactly the correct tone

The idea, she elaborated, was to help viewers cope with the "new normal" brought about by the coronavirus outbreak by showing the experiences of other families living in lockdown. Four households will be chosen to have cameras installed in their kitchens and living rooms. And there will be contributions from the Operation Transformation experts Aoife Hearne, Karl Henry, Dr Eddie Murphy and Dr Sumi Dunne.


“We’re looking at different households [coping] in different ways,” Thomas said. “We’re looking for families, couples, maybe people with elderly parents living with them, maybe a flatshare of students, people living with teenagers – a cross section of society to represent different households.”

RTÉ has been having a decent pandemic. Claire Byrne has won praise for presenting her current-affairs show from her garden shed after testing positive for Covid-19. And in general the news coverage has been informative and without the hysteria witnessed elsewhere. (We're coughing into our elbows in your direction, Sky News.)

Yes, a lifestyle series to help us process the physical and mental challenges of social distancing is a perfectly reasonable suggestion – as long as it is done sensitively. And, true, who better to guide us than Operation Transformation’s experts, who have won the trust of the public across the past 15 years?

To an extent the problem begins and ends, then, with the name. “Operation Covid Nation” is trivialising, trite and in howlingly poor taste when people are struggling for their lives in intensive care. We’re facing the business end of an era-defining pandemic, with the mother of all recessions as a cheeky bonus. RTÉ might consider dropping the cheesy wordplay. That’s what Twitter thinks, anyway.

“Jesus wept! What will they think of next? ‘The Great Famine: Ireland’s Thinnest Family’? ‘World War I: Dancing in the Trenches’?” was one typical tweet.

“Whoever greenlighted Operation Covid Nation should be ashamed. Trying to put a glossy lifestyle magazine sheen on something that has people in ICU & dying is in massively poor taste,” went another.

“WHAT THE ACTUAL F**K!!,” contributed a third tweeter, in a sentiment shared across the internet.

It’s easy to rush to judgment, especially with so many at home spending too much time on social media. But someone at the meeting between RTÉ, the HSE and VIP should have cleared their throat and suggested that “Operation Covid Nation” didn’t strike exactly the correct tone.

Yes, we are increasingly turning to gallows humour. Still, it’s one thing for a family member to forward a Covid-19 playlist – Isolation by Joy Division, Don’t Stand So Close to Me by The Police... – but another for RTÉ to take a punning punt on Operation Covid Nation. The series itself could help us negotiate the slow-motion ordeal we’re living through. But first it needs to be taken seriously. And that can happen only if it drops the tacky title.