Like so many things in politics, assessing this Government’s record on Covid-19 is a matter of perspective.
In one telling, the Coalition has supported the economy through radical interventions while keeping deaths from coronavirus under control, compared to other similar countries. Confronted by two dangerous mutations, livelihoods have been preserved and lives saved.
In another, it inherited a situation where that virus had almost been eliminated and failed to stop a slow deterioration that culminated in the disaster at Christmas, and has been forced to rely on two crude lockdowns.
The truth is likely somewhere in between – it may also, ultimately, be a matter for an inquiry or expert panel to examine, as was flagged by Taoiseach Micheál Martin in an interview with The Irish Times last week.
Any such effort will undoubtedly examine the situation in which the Coalition found itself when it took office. Much of the first few months were about planning for the future. The July jobs programme, stay and spend initiative and five-level plan were all predicated on the idea that something largely resembling the life which re-emerged last summer could be maintained. There was, says one Coalition insider, “a little bit of groupthink, a little bit of reluctance to accept this thing was going to come back and be problematic”.
The changeover in power was difficult for a variety of reasons. Parties unfamiliar with governing together had to do so against an unprecedented backdrop. The rocky start to the Coalition's life, from the Cromwell Cabinet with criticism from the western region about lack of representation (to the jettisoning of ministers (Barry Cowen followed by Dara Calleary) were visible and largely non-coronavirus related symptoms of deeper problems. But sources say there was an inevitable step change in how the pandemic was managed after the handover.
The previous administration had benefited from total alignment between public expectations of Government, mobilisation of the entire firepower of the State in the first response, and consensus between politicians, healthcare chiefs and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).
"That changed when the new Government came in. New Taoiseach, new Minister for Health – that relationship just changed and it wasn't as effective as in the beginning," remarks one Fine Gael source. Fianna Fáil insiders also remember it as a strange, almost listless time. "There was an odd feeling around Government buildings. [There were] very few people around even."
In the Department of Health, there was no secretary general, a situation that remained for six months and two lockdowns. In some departments, Ministers were slow to appoint advisers; sometimes, when appointments came, they had little government or political experience. Donnelly himself became a magnet for attention over the summer, with media missteps grabbing the limelight. All the while, the coronavirus situation gradually deteriorated, first in meat plants and mushroom factories, then in whole counties. Successes achieved with local lockdowns proved to be fleeting and by the time autumn set in the situation was grave.
The political world was blasted on to a different axis by the recommendation that Ireland move to Level 5 restrictions, delivered by State chief medical officer Tony Holohan after returning from a period of compassionate leave. The massive, and public, row that followed was immensely damaging. As Nphet and the Government briefed against each other, and accusations flew over who had leaked the Level 5 recommendation, the opportunity to reform structures for managing Ireland's pandemic – including Nphet – also evaporated. In the wake of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar's acrimonious Claire Byrne appearance in which he said recommendation to move to Level 5 landed without consultation on a Sunday night and hadn't been thought through properly, any attempt to change things would have been seen as the Government "trying to strangle" Nphet, says a source.
Senior figures in the Government felt bounced into accepting Level 5. While there is limited sympathy within some parts of the Coalition for such bruised egos (“public health teams should be able to advise freely and things can change in a week,” says a source), the rupture had a long and meaningful legacy. “That first big blow-up was pivotal because Tony won in the end,” says a source.
Because Nphet’s view prevailed, the Government wanted to show it held the whip hand at the start of December. “Government wanted to show it had some kind of agency, but when it exercised that agency, it blew up in its face in a pretty spectacular way,” says a source.
That Christmas was a spectacular tragedy is not disputed by anyone in Government. One senior source says that Christmas was a disaster is “an undeniable and indisputable fact”. The Nphet recommendation, and the Government interpretation of it, will likely form the core of any inquiry into Ireland’s pandemic, and the ruinous third wave, but it is likely there will be plenty of blame to go around.
Relentless public attention has also been corrosive, say some insiders. Leaking of information, particularly on the next steps of public health advice, has undermined the response. “It was often in the media before half the Cabinet knew and it leads to a real breakdown in trust. It’s very hard to operate in that environment”.
Across Government, there has been deep frustration at times with Nphet, where many Coalition insiders feel Holohan exercises an almost absolute power, and the pace of decisions from other bodies such as the National Immunisation Advisory Committee.
This year has been characterised by a long, hard march out of lockdown. At times, it has gone quicker or slower, depending on the public health advice, but it has all been in the same direction. The Government has also subtly divested itself of many of the policy interventions its 2020 strategy had been built around. There were no local lockdowns (although they remain in the armoury), and the idea that the country would shift wholesale or in part out of different restriction levels was quietly (although never officially) abandoned.
Aside from one big internal row over Mandatory Hotel Quarantine, where the Department of Health prevailed, the Coalition has successfully lifted restrictions bit by bit. One significant shift came around St Patrick’s Day when it became clear that due to the extra transmissabilty of the Alpha or UK variant it would be impossible to suppress the virus to the levels seen last summer. This, in turn, shifted more pressure on to a vaccine programme that attracted its fair share of political attention, especially in the first quarter of the year.
However, the main controversies – vaccination of staff family members at the Coombe hospital; the Beacon Hospital vaccinating staff of a nearby private school – have their roots outside the programme proper, as do myriad supply and regulatory curve balls. It is telling how Ministers are eager to praise the rollout and the HSE – success has many fathers.
Right now, the Government is preparing some of the biggest moves back to “normal” since the pandemic began. For many, the almost total absence of indoor socialising and overseas travel since last March have been key signifiers of how strange and different their lives have become. Restoring these activities – if they remain open – would likely close a chapter for a lot of people, and provide a further polling tailwind for the Government. Typically of coronavirus, that call has to be made just as a new and serious threat emerges on the horizon, in the form of the Delta variant. Getting the next call right is far from straightforward, with all options likely to lead to a backlash from some quarters.
As HSE chief executive Paul Reid observed charitably last week, you wouldn't envy the Government at times like this.