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The doctor who questioned Ireland’s Covid policy and lost his job: ‘We destroyed young people’s lives for what?’

Dr Martin Feeley, who lost his job after criticising Ireland’s response to Covid, on his decision to speak publicly against lockdowns from inside the HSE

Martin Feeley, who resigned from the HSE after criticising the Government's handling of Covid-19. Photograph : Laura Hutton

The only Health Service Executive (HSE) doctor to criticise the restrictions imposed at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic says he has no regrets about his actions, which cost him his job.

“The only stupid thing I did was to say what I thought, which was daft. I should have kept my mouth shut,” says Dr Martin Feeley of his decision to speak publicly against lockdowns from inside the HSE.

Within days of The Irish Times in September 2020 reporting his criticism of “draconian” restrictions, and his belief that low-risk people should be exposed to the virus, Feeley was gone from the health service after a 45-year career. He blames former HSE chief executive Paul Reid for the decision, though Reid, when asked at the time, denied involvement.

As a young man, Feeley rowed for Ireland at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Never one to stint in his efforts, Feeley once collapsed from exhaustion after a particularly tight race.


He went on to become a respected vascular surgeon and then – again showing his stamina – stayed on beyond retirement age as clinical director of the Dublin Midlands Hospital Group. But once he voiced his objection to the prevailing approach to the pandemic, the end came swiftly.

“I was forced to resign as opposed to just walking away,” he says. (At the time, he described his exit as a resignation.)

More than two years on, he remains an unrepentant critic of the approach Ireland took during the pandemic. The passage of time has cast Feeley’s original claims in a new light. His contention that Covid-19 was less serious hit the headlines, but he emphasises he was talking about the under-65s, so those most at risk could be easily identified.

Back in 2020, Covid was considered about 10 times more lethal than flu. With milder variants coming to dominate since and most people having some sort of immunity, some experts see little difference in their current impact, though others differ.

Feeley also criticised the emphasis during the pandemic on daily case numbers – “the deliberate, unforgivable terrorising of the population” is how he puts it today. This point was echoed recently by the HSE’s former infection control chief, Prof Martin Cormican, who said Ireland’s Covid response “depended on fear”.

Grafton Street in Dublin city centre, at the end of March 2020, during the first Covid-19 lockdown. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

In 2020, Feeley said any assessment of Ireland’s strategy to combat the virus should take into account the cost to people’s quality of life, a point that has wider support now.

Initially, he thought the restrictions were justified and even wrote to Cormican looking for supplies of masks and protective gear. “I remember the absolute terror inflicted by the pictures coming out of Italy. It frightened everybody, but for me, the age-related aspect was hugely relieving.”

Within weeks, taking his cue from Sweden’s light-touch approach, he had changed his mind. “On the day the Government decided they were going to cancel everything, we were preparing for the Gannon Cup [the annual boat race between UCD and TCD]. I had a crew ready to race when they cancelled the event.

“I remember explaining to them how ridiculous it was. We knew by mid-March [by which time the Government had ordered the closure of schools and pubs] precisely how dangerous Covid was and how the danger varied enormously and predictably by age,” he said.

“I remember saying to them: ‘You guys are more at risk of being killed on your bike this evening than from ever dying of Covid.’”

In mid-2020, when he says HSE officials were warning that hospitals in Dublin were in danger of being overwhelmed, he did his own check and found there were only eight Covid patients in ICU. “What they said was untrue. It was part of a terrorising campaign,” he claims.

Did he do anything about it? Ring a journalist, for example? “Not at all. It would have been ignored.”

How could he be so sure of the threat Covid posed, so early?

“I knew absolutely what the risk was to everybody, including myself. I decided I wasn’t going to take any precautions whatsoever. I was going to get it and I would survive.”

Someone semi-responsible like me voices an opinion that is different from the accepted and, because they do, they are shut up not just by the HSE but by mainstream media, apart from you

As for all those Covid cases, he claims “the goalposts were moved” on their definition. “They weren’t cases at all. Before April 2020, a case was someone who had symptoms and was sick; after that, it was someone with a positive test, even if they felt perfectly happy and well.”

Feeley says he accepts “flattening the curve” of cases made some sense in order to take pressure off emergency services, but he believes this could have been achieved by focusing on the at-risk groups.

People in a socially distant queue wait to enter Penneys on Dublin's O'Connell Street in September 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photograph: Alan Betson

He professes disappointment at the reaction of his medical colleagues after he broke with the consensus. “A very small number contacted me and said they agreed with the thread of what I was saying. They thought I had a valid view and it should be discussed,” he said. “Someone semi-responsible like me voices an opinion that is different from the accepted and, because they do, they are shut up not just by the HSE but by mainstream media, apart from you.”

Yet he was interviewed on television. “I was on the telly not because I spoke up against the system but because I was forced to resign. They weren’t interested in my alternative viewpoint.”

The Medical Council, which has pursued other doctors with nonconformist views, showed no interest in Feeley.

“I don’t know why; they certainly took after people who said and did much less than I did,” he said. “All of those doctors and I would have infinitely more experience in dealing with patients than Tony Holohan or any of his henchmen. Public health doctors at that level never see patients.”

But Feeley wasn’t seeing patients either. “You’re suggesting my experience dealing with hundreds of thousands of patients in a lifetime and operating on thousands counts for zilch?”

The Government is expected to formally announce a review of Ireland’s Covid response shortly, but Feeley believes one is “completely unnecessary”.

“We have the youngest population in Europe so we should have the lowest death rate. We shouldn’t be slapping ourselves on the back.”

He finally got Covid in December 2021. “I spent a half a day in bed and then I went out and swept up the leaves. I’ve had swine flu. It was worse.”

The people in charge [of the health service] couldn’t give a damn. Everyone’s first priority is themselves and their careers, and that includes doctors, to a degree

The official response “played down” the role of obesity in the pandemic, he argues. “If people are obese or elderly, or have co-morbidities, they mind themselves and stay at home and you don’t visit them. But why stop 85 per cent of the population living their lives for two years? Those two years are the best two years of the rest of your life and yet we just let them go by.

“We destroyed young people’s lives for what? It looks like nothing was gained from it.”

To the riposte that many people are alive today thanks to actions taken during the pandemic, he points to a subsequent rise in excess deaths.

Why didn’t he stay in the system and try to counter the prevailing orthodoxy, as Cormican did? “He got nowhere, so he was as effective as I was. I don’t see much evidence that he managed to soften the impact of the restrictions.”

Feeley, who draws inspiration from the radical Austrian thinker Ivan Illich’s critique of the over-medicalisation of society, is scathing about the wider health service. “It’s an absolute shambles. The people in charge couldn’t give a damn. Everyone’s first priority is themselves and their careers, and that includes doctors, to a degree.”

He joined one of the hospital groups believing they were going to take over the running of the health service and implement efficiencies, but that stalled after official policy to abolish the HSE was reversed. Getting sacked at 70 didn’t bother him too much.

“They have filled hundreds of acres of extra office space with people doing I don’t know what. They brought in a layer of admin in the hospital groups, which I was in, on massive salaries and they all wanted to build their own little empires. And they produce absolutely nothing.

“Money dictates everything these days. People’s [sense of] importance, the focus on amassing wealth, drives me around the bend. It’s so sad – American medicine brought in here, on steroids.”

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.