Investigation under way after threatening phone calls made to Nphet members

Security for public health officials increased following posts on far-right Facebook pages

Investigation into threatening and menacing phone calls to the personal numbers of chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan (left) and his deputy Dr Ronan Glynn is underway. Photograph: Colin Keegan/ Collins Dublin

Investigation into threatening and menacing phone calls to the personal numbers of chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan (left) and his deputy Dr Ronan Glynn is underway. Photograph: Colin Keegan/ Collins Dublin

 

Gardaí are increasingly concerned about threats from far-right activists towards politicians and public health officials.

An investigation into threatening and menacing phone calls to the personal numbers of chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and his deputy Dr Ronan Glynn is currently underway, and security measures relating to members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) and other public figures are being ramped up in response to what one garda called a “rise in the temperature” in relation to online and offline rhetoric.

Security sources declined to discuss these security measures, as did a Garda spokesman, but they are understood to involve advice to officials on how to keep safe and the provision of extra patrols around their homes.

Threats towards officials involved in the response to Covid-19 have been relatively common in some online communities over the past year, but gardaí have noticed an uptick in recent weeks. “They seem to be becoming more intense and less subtle,” said one source.

Far-right activists have attempted to position themselves as leaders and organisers of public discontent towards the Government’s response to the pandemic, particularly the recent decision to introduce “vaccine passports” to allow for the reopening of indoor dining.

This week a Facebook page which promotes far-right activism posted the address and phone number of a Nphet official, shortly before the nuisance calls started. It is not clear if this is connected to the calls.

A senior garda said on Sunday the force is not aware of any credible threats to officials, but that online rhetoric is being monitored. Another said that policing online threats is “hugely challenging”.

“People have a right to their own opinion. What some people consider to be fair comment, others do not. It is tricky. But we have all seen comments that go way beyond what we consider fair comment.”

A Garda spokesman confirmed it is investigating the recent menacing calls to officials. A similar call to RTÉ health correspondent Fergal Bowers is also being investigated.

The calls appear to be part of a co-ordinated campaign, but they differed in content and tone.

‘Violent rhetoric’

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly condemned the activity in a post on Twitter on Sunday.

“It is absolutely appalling that public health doctors advising Government would be targeted with abuse for doing their jobs in the middle of a pandemic.

“They have worked relentlessly throughout Covid and have difficult jobs to do. They deserve our respect and support.”

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said in a tweet he was “sickened” to hear of public health officials and their families being subject to abusive calls.

“Our public health officials have been working around the clock for well over a year now to keep us safe & provide us with the best possible expert advice.”

Aoife Gallagher, an analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a counter-extremism organisation, said: “Many Covid and vaccine-related conspiracy theories allege that politicians and public health advisers are secretly colluding to either kill people or strip away people’s liberties as part of an elaborate and sinister global plot.

“Since the introduction of legislation around vaccine certs, there has certainly been a worrying uptick in specific threats coming from those pushing these theories,” she said.

“There are many valid reasons to oppose the vaccine certs, but this use of violent rhetoric is worrying because it’s providing fuel to a movement that is growing more desperate due to the conspiracy theories and false information they’ve been consuming.”