Government knew of Holohan concerns before Level 5 Nphet meeting

Chief medical officer says he told Minister for Health his views on Sunday morning

 Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly: spoke to chief medical officer Tony Holohan on Sunday before the Nphet meeting. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly: spoke to chief medical officer Tony Holohan on Sunday before the Nphet meeting. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire


The Government was made aware of chief medical officer Tony Holohan’s concerns about the spread of Covid-19 before the meeting of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) on Sunday.

On Monday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar criticised Dr Holohan and Nphet saying the recommendation to move to Level 5 had not be “thought through” and there had not been “prior consultation” with the Government.

Speaking on RTÉ on Monday night, after the Government had announced all counties were moving to Level 3 from midnight on Tuesday, Mr Varadkar said the advice of Nphet to move to Level 5 had “landed on us” by surprise on Sunday night.

However, Dr Holohan confirmed on Wednesday evening that he had spoken with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on Sunday morning, before the meeting, and had shared his concerns and those of members of the team.

“We just discussed my concerns, the concerns I shared with him of the conversations I had had with a range of members of Nphet over the course of the preceding 24 hours,” he said.

Asked if he had indicated that a move to Level 5 could be in the offing, he said he wouldn’t pre-empt the outcome of the Nphet discussion “but I was very clear about the level of concern that I would have, and had”.

Mr Donnelly confirmed Dr Holohan spoke to him on Sunday about his concerns about the spread of Covid-19 and the need to increase the level of restrictions.

A spokeswoman for Mr Donnelly said: “The Minister and CMO spoke before and after Nphet’s meeting on Sunday. Before the meeting they discussed the deteriorating epidemiological situation. After the Nphet meeting the minister was informed for the first time that Nphet had recommended a move to Level 5.

“The Minister and Taoiseach communicated after both conversations between the Minister and CMO on Sunday.”

Afterwards, Mr Martin spoke to Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, and the two men discussed the situation.

But there was surprise in Government circles at the revelation they knew about the Nphet advice on Sunday afternoon.

Both Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin were critical of the sudden decision by Nphet, leaked on Sunday night, at the Cabinet meeting on Monday.

According to one Minister, Mr Martin and the secretary general to the Government Martin Fraser – the Government’s top official who sits at Cabinet – were “visibly angry” at the meeting.

Though acknowledging that the leaders of the Government knew about the Nphet advice before it was leaked on Sunday night, senior figures remain critical of Dr Holohan, regarding the sudden revelation as a “stunt to bounce us into a decision”, in the words of one senior source.

Asked about his views of Mr Varadkar’s criticism of Nphet over its recommendation that Level 5 restrictions be imposed, Dr Holohan said he had spoken with Mr Varadkar on Tuesday night, and that he had a “long standing good relationship” with him. “He understands and shares my analysis, every bit, and has as much concern about it as I do.”

He said he is “absolutely satisfied” that the air has been cleared between them. “Government has to make decisions on a range of other factors that are outside our area of expertise, but we still have a sober job to do to make the continuing assessment of the disease,” he said.

“He and I had a very good discussion last night that went on for a considerable period of time. We discussed issues of recent days, but we discussed and spent much more time discussing the disease and what we need to do collectively to enhance our collective ability as a country to respond to it,” he said.

Asked if he ever had considered his position in recent days, he said: “I’m around a long time, and I have a thick skin and I’ve been involved in plenty of issues over the years. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs collectively if there wasn’t cut and thrust and debate and all that. None of it is every personal, and none of it every saps my will to continue with the important job that I have.”