Covid pandemic response ‘depended on fear’, says former Nphet member

‘Overwhelming’ evidence for mandatory vaccination against Covid, says Prof Martin Cormican

There was “overwhelming” evidence for making vaccination against Covid-19 compulsory during the pandemic, according to a former National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) member.

Mandatory vaccination should be considered where “profound adverse consequences” for society as a whole result from people declining vaccination, says Prof Martin Cormican.

With the third anniversary of the pandemic approaching this week, Prof Cormican has delivered the strongest criticism yet from inside Ireland’s response to the crisis, saying it depended too much on fear and limited basic freedoms for too long.

A known sceptic about widespread mask use, the UCG academic and former HSE head of infection was sidelined for long periods within the official response and initially left out of Nphet.

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According to Prof Cormican, Ireland focused too much on short-term metrics such as case numbers and mortality, imposed measures that “excessively limited basic freedoms” for too long and failed to take adequate account of the “collateral damage” to health and wellbeing, especially on those who were already vulnerable or disadvantaged.

“We gave too high a priority to maintaining and restoring international travel. Our communications with the public in some cases gave the impression of greater certainty than was supported by evidence.

“We depended too much on fear to influence behaviour. We did enduring damage to the environment through use of testing and PPE in the absence of evidence or sound rationale for proportionate benefit. We have undermined many of the foundations of rational infection prevention and control and have a long road back.”

The maxim that we should “follow the science” was both misleading and amoral, he maintains. “The “follow the science” mantra tended to communicate to the public a degree of certainty about the expected benefits of certain measures that was not supported by evidence.”

Prof Cormican’s remarks were made in a paper to the Irish Society of Clinical Microbiologists last November but were not reported at the time.

Vaccination was the “outstanding measure” that reduced the death toll from Covid, he says, but those who did not accept it placed a “disproportionate” demand on healthcare, especially ICU.

It would have been more “straightforward and more honest” to opt for mandatory vaccination than continuing to require vaccination for international travel, he suggests.

He is critical of the “pointless controversy” over antigen versus PCR testing, which “distracted from the substantive issues” such as the distress and inconvenience caused by repeated sampling and false positives.

There is “very little evidence” that better ventilation would have limited the spread of Covid-19, he says, and neither does the evidence support “wide-open windows resulting in freezing schoolrooms, nursing homes, hospitals and buses”.

Likewise, the evidence for the two-metre standard for social distances that was imposed during the pandemic was “very poor or non-existent”.

As for masks, “it is very difficult to see any support in real-world experience that the requirement for community-wide mask use made any difference”.

“There is an uncomfortable feeling that mask use in schools, like so much else that deprived children of their education and childhood, was done to placate powerful interest groups at the expense of the children’s fundamental rights.”

Pointing to the widespread misuse of masks, he adds that “for many people their socks are cleaner than their mask”.

“All the testing, case and contact management and mask use generated a mass of anxiety and a mass of waste and made some people very wealthy.”

Ireland did a lot better than other countries in the management of the pandemic, he acknowledges, but says there was a lot “we could have done better”.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times