Tony Holohan’s best is not quite good enough for Ciara Kelly

Radio: The Newstalk host presses the chief medical officer on his pandemic response

As December beckons, so boys and girls of all ages inevitably start wondering what Christmas might bring. Sure enough, right on cue, a white-haired man turns up on Monday morning urging good behaviour from those listeners hoping for a happy Yuletide. Admittedly, the presence of Dr Tony Holohan on Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays) doesn't automatically engender festive cheer, given his role as a harbinger of bad news throughout the pandemic. But while the chief medical officer is nobody's idea of Santa Claus, at least he isn't playing the Grinch on this occasion. Christmas hasn't been cancelled, not yet anyway.

Interviewed by Ciara Kelly, Holohan is measured in tone, but equally keen to stress that despite concerns over high case numbers, lockdown 3.0 isn't preordained. "We'll just have to see how we go," he says of the current situation, "there's nothing inevitable about this". He thinks the recent restrictions are having an effect in curtailing socialisation, with people already "stepping back". The message is clear: there's still time for everyone to avoid being put on the naughty list.

While Holohan tries to highlight the positives, Kelly seems in less forgiving form. From the off, she pushes her guest on his long-standing resistance to antigen tests. Holohan replies that he hasn’t “reservations per se”, but says tests are being improperly used. Kelly responds that that the obvious solution is to give the public the “extra layer of protection” by educating them on the correct usage of antigen tests. “We’re not empowering people to do things, it’s quite a paternalistic approach,” she says sternly. At least Holohan gets to be Daidí na Nphet this way.

It's a lively encounter, with Kelly rarely letting up in her questions on the slow rollout of booster shots or the efficacy of restrictions. The skirmishing atmosphere is in contrast to Holohan's appearance on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1) the same day, where he is given more time to speak by host Rachael English. Yet it's also notable that Holohan's answers are much the same in both cases. For all that Kelly pressures her guest, he sticks to his guns. Asked repeatedly if he would have handled the pandemic any differently, Holohan is firm in his reply: "We've done our level best."


For her part, Kelly is doing pretty well right now. The latest white-knuckle phase of the endless pandemic rollercoaster means that she is more front and centre on Newstalk Breakfast than co-presenter Shane Coleman. Kelly's previous career as a GP means she brings an easy expertise to items on public health, which naturally feature prominently: on Wednesday she covers both the scarcity of PCR testing appointments and the apparently lackadaisical checks for Covid-19 certificates at Dublin Airport.

Sceptical layman

While Kelly uses her medical background to good effect, her station colleague Kieran Cuddihy adopts the mien of a mildly sceptical layman on The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays), consistently questioning whether the correct measures are being used against the pandemic. On Tuesday, he discusses Nphet's tardy embrace of antigen testing with Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty, who also levels the charge of paternalism against public health advisers. "They've made their views loud and clear, that they don't necessarily trust us to do antigen tests," says Doherty, citing an unimpeachable medical source for her opinions: "My mind tells me it's a very essential part of the public health response."

Such annoyance at the “insulting” attitude of Nphet initially seems like grist to Cuddihy’s mill, with Doherty providing plenty of good copy: “We’re speaking out of both sides of our mouths, and it’s wrong.” But eventually the host pushes back against the showy outrage of a Senator who is, after all, a prominent member of a Government party. When Doherty starts using experiences of individual GPs to back her broader argument, Cuddihy suggests that such anecdotal evidence isn’t enough: “I’ll bow to [GPs’] superior knowledge on medical knowledge, but I’m not sure they’re experts on data collection.” The politician’s response sounds glib. “Doctors differ and that’s time immemorial.” The point about the key role of antigen tests remains, but Doherty walks a fine line between candid opinion and self-serving politicking.

Others are at it too. On Wednesday, Cuddihy interviews Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris about a new project to "ask the people of Ireland where they would like their taxpayers' money to be used in terms of research and science". The Minister is full of enthusiasm for the initiative, which he thinks will "take the temperature of people we don't talk to enough", perhaps not the best analogy in these virus-stricken times.

When discussion turns to other matters, Harris maintains his puppyish demeanour, while humble bragging ambitiously. Of the student accommodation crisis, he says the existing private market system is “broken” and in need of a new model. “I could sit here as a Government Minister and rhyme off a load of speaking points,” he says, before doing just that, in the form of worthy but vague proposals. Similarly, when Cuddihy wonders if there is an “unhelpful level of catastrophising” about the pandemic in the media, Harris agrees. “This is not a message from a Minister saying everything is perfect,” he says. “It’s going to be turbulent and difficult, but we’re going to get through.” It’s an impressive feat to claim credit for Government policy while simultaneously distancing oneself from it, but Harris achieves it.

Again, Cuddihy lets his guest speak his mind before reeling him in. The host asks Harris if, as one of four health ministers over the past 14 years, he feels responsible for the annual winter carnage in the health system. “Of course I do, that’s why I enjoyed trying to fix it,” Harris replies, proudly outlining his achievements while running the department. Cuddihy scoffs at this “glowing self-reference”. “So it’s the other three lads who are the problem,” the host says. “You’ve done such a bang-up job, they must have been awful at it.” Harris admits to “challenges” in his time, but despite his host’s disparaging comments, sounds only slightly chastened. Clearly someone thinks they’ve been good recently.

Moment of the Week 
On Tuesday, Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1) covers the case of the late Davy Tweed, the former Ireland rugby international and DUP politician who was also "a bully, a violent thug and a paedophile". Tweed's stepdaughter Amanda Brown recounts being sexually abused by him as a child, detailing the manipulative behaviour he used to control her: only years later did she discover Tweed sexually abused her sisters.

Brown’s experience is unspeakable, but her resilience is more impressive: she eventually reported him to the police. “Once you take away their power, you see they aren’t the monsters you have created in your mind.” She takes no pleasure in Tweed’s recent death in a car accident: “I just feel peace, knowing nobody is going to be harmed at his hands.” Powerful.