Review of how State handled Covid-19 needed, ‘but not public inquiry’, says Prof Philip Nolan

Prof Philip Nolan: ‘I don’t see the value in an inquiry as a piece of political theatre. I do see value in a genuine lessons-learned review’

Ireland needs an “after-action review” of how it handled Covid, rather than a public inquiry, to ensure it is prepared in the best possible way for an inevitable global pandemic in coming years, according to Prof Philip Nolan.

Despite a high number of deaths, he believes Ireland in the main responded well to the pandemic though it might not have always made the right decisions. He previously acknowledged it was a “deeply traumatic time” when everybody lost somebody close to them or someone they knew.

A key member of the National Public Health Emergency Team, the State’s advisory group in the Covid battle, he had a critical role in leading its disease monitoring subgroup, in modelling likely scenarios and communicating possibilities to the Government and to the public.

UK inquiry

He confirms he has been keeping an eye on the UK Covid-19 inquiry and adds: “We watch everything that happens in Britain with interest.”


Should Ireland have a public inquiry? His initial answer is “why?”

He explains: “The words ‘public inquiry’ are freighted. You normally hear of a public inquiry in the context of something has gone terribly wrong or someone has done something terribly wrong, so we need to investigate that and potentially hold people to account.”

Public inquiries can be difficult to manage, he says, underlining it is not a decision for him. The UK inquiry has become embroiled with Downing Street in trying to secure former PM Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages and diaries while “partygate” and the severity and timing of lockdowns are the over-riding focus.

“It’s a democracy and if government or parliament was of the view that something had gone terribly wrong [in Ireland] and needs to be investigated ... then that’s their decision,” Nolan adds. The Government has indicated it will set up some form of inquiry.

He recommends “doing what public health professionals or emergency management professionals do all the time, which is an after-action review”.

That mandatory action amounts to “genuine lessons learned”, should – “or frankly, when – this happens again. How could we be better prepared ... how could we respond better?”

A review led by former UCD president Prof Hugh Brady has been submitted to the Government. Nolan believes current circumstances globally indicate another pandemic is inevitable.

“I don’t see the value in an inquiry as a piece of political theatre. I do see value in a genuine lessons-learned review as an instrument. The first step has certainly been taken through the Brady review. I presume that would be published in due course and there may be more work to be done at that point.”

Leaked findings suggests the public health advisory group, which Brady chaired, found Ireland lost fewer people to Covid compared to similar sized countries but that came at great cost to society and the economy. It recommends setting up a new “emerging health threats agency”.

‘Dislocating crisis’

Nolan accepts “an incredible number of people died” during what he previously described as “that dreadful dislocating crisis”, but he believes there is strong evidence Ireland performed well.

“Different countries had different approaches and different contexts. The political and professional actors in Ireland in Covid-19 did the best that they could and acted in the best interests of society throughout. That was my experience on the basis of the information available at the time. It doesn’t mean every decision was the right decision. It does mean that more and more information came to light over time, which might have you re-evaluate decisions.”

How did we perform in comparison to Britain or other countries? He replies: “It’s not my place to comment on any other specific country ... we always found it problematic when people who perhaps didn’t understand our national context would comment on our management. Every country’s context is different. That said, if you look how severe the pandemic was, if you look at excess mortality, total hospital admissions, I think there’s objective evidence that in our overall management of the pandemic – and there’s economic evidence in terms of the speed of economic recovery – that we performed well.”

On how the political and administrative system worked, he describes himself as “almost an ordinary citizen being exposed to the mechanics” of it. He was impressed at the capacity of senior public servants and Cabinet “to absorb really complex technical information and make a political decision on the basis of that. I think there is objective evidence it was managed well. And for me, there was intuitive evidence that people were doing their best under very difficult circumstances.”

Viral threats

Future pandemic risk is really hard to predict, he says. “We should do a lessons-learned exercise, and then understand we will be unprepared in different ways for the next novel crisis. One of the difficulties with Covid was it was essentially treated as influenza. Because that was the pandemic that had been prepared for [globally]. In fairness, that wasn’t a bad approach. There’s a lot of overlap between influenza and Covid but they are different. Biodiversity loss, unsustainable food systems, climate change and global mobility and travel mean pandemics and the emergence of novel viral threats will be more frequent for the foreseeable future.”

When might that be? “There are people more expert than me that would be able to give better probabilities for different things happening. Increasing frequency of very damaging pandemics is only one of the manifold reasons that we have to deal with biodiversity loss [and] the unsustainable ways we consume and move our food,” he warns.

He cites the case of the Asian tiger mosquito which has taken over most of France. “It came there on food trucks. Not because France is warming, but because of the mobility of food out of Asia and Africa into Italy, Spain and France.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times