Government consultants discussed ‘war room’ for Covid-19 response

Email outlines plan for ‘integrated insight centre’ that could seek data from State bodies

The draft email says the project would ‘provide a central and integrated insight centre and platform that better informs our cross-government C-19 response. Photograph: NIAID-RML via AP

Consultants working for the Government discussed setting up a “war room” for a data-driven “integrated insight centre” on Covid-19 dubbed “One Government Centre”, documents show.

The firm EY, which has provided services to the Government on its Covid response, pitched the idea to senior civil servants in the Department of the Taoiseach late last year and envisaged requesting data from a range of State bodies.

A draft email drawn up by an EY partner and sent to civil servants for distribution to State bodies outlines a plan for the “C-19 One Government Centre (1GC) within the Department of An Taoiseach”.

Hospital Report

It says the project would “provide a central and integrated insight centre and platform that better informs our cross-government C-19 response”. It continues: “We want to extend the existing information you already share to enable further insights supporting government decisions.”

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It noted that it will be done in a way "that recognises the confidentiality of your data". Later records show measures to address data privacy and protection were discussed at meetings. A range of data are discussed in the documents, including from mobile networks and Leap Cards. Discussions were also held around contacting the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Social Protection and the Central Bank.

Most senior people

The records show correspondence or meetings relating to the project involved some of the most senior people in the State's response to Covid, including Department of the Taoiseach top civil servants Martin Fraser and Liz Canavan, while the chiefs of staff to the leaders of the Coalition parties were copied into at least one mail. They show the director general of the CSO, Pádraig Dalton, and Philip Nolan, a senior Nphet member, were also briefed on the project.

It is not clear if data was shared from other State bodies. The Department of the Taoiseach did not respond to a series of detailed questions on the scope, status, costs and governance of the project. It referred to responses to parliamentary questions from the Taoiseach which said work was being done to “integrate data and insights across a variety of internal and external sources”. The replies detail some outputs of the data, including differences between waves of the disease, mortality and the impact of restrictions.

EY said it does not comment on client matters.

Key meeting

Analysis similar to that detailed in the parliamentary question responses was collated by EY and presented during a key meeting prior to the decision to reopen parts of the economy and society before Christmas. The documents show extensive correspondence between civil servants and the EY team, and sharing of similar documents, in the run-up to the meeting on November 28th over lifting restrictions.

While the department refused to release any presentations on the project included as attachments to the email correspondence, an agenda for a meeting outlines how key decisions might be informed by the project was to be discussed, and that agenda items included “discuss war room and set-up and how this will work”.

‘Art of the possible’

Frank O’Keeffe, the managing partner of EY, was also involved in correspondence on the project. In early October, he emailed Mr Fraser saying EY partners “have spent the past 24 hours thinking through the art of the possible” on the project. In the email, addressed to Mr Fraser, Ms Canavan and others, he said: “We obviously have been going off a very high-level conversation but I truly believe we have something that is the bones of what we were discussing”. The same mail shows five other EY partners or lead partners aside from Mr O’Keeffe were working on the project at that stage.

People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy said the documents suggest a large amount of data from different agencies was being discussed, including from Revenue and the Department of Social Protection. "The Department of the Taoiseach should clarify which information was handed over. In particular, they should clarify whether any information which would permit the identification of individuals was passed to EY".

‘Critically important’

Antoin O Lachtnain, a director of Digital Rights Ireland, said it was “critically important” that the State be completely transparent as to whether any data was processed as part of the project, the sources of the data and the granularity of the data. He said this was important to restore trust “which has been sorely tested following the revelations of dossier-building by the Department of Health”.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times