Anatomy of a lockdown U-turn: Holding out against Nphet a gamble politicians unwilling to take
There is a sense that the administration’s credibility has been damaged. ‘Failure of nerve’ is a phrase used by several people
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, according to a person who has worked with him, is not someone who accepts rejection with equanimity. If he doesn’t get his way, he doesn’t walk away. He keeps trying to get it.
“Tony just keeps coming back and coming back at you,” the source says. “He just keeps battering away.”
It is this persistence and determination that has brought Holohan to the top of his profession. And it has been aimed at the Government for the past three weeks. Last Monday he got his way.
As cases mounted in recent weeks, first in Dublin, then the Border counties, then elsewhere, Holohan and his colleagues on the public health team kept working their data, making their projections, giving their advice. They believed only a Level 5 lockdown was certain to bring the spread of the virus under control. And they were determined to get one.
Almost from the day that the Government refused to follow the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) recommendation three weeks ago, Ministers were feeling the heat. Holohan had acquired the status of a national leader before the summer as the face of the State’s fight against the pandemic, with the politicians very much in supporting roles. Now they were refusing to follow his advice.
Ministers were asked: are you sure? What if you’re wrong?
Under pressure, the Government began to tighten restrictions in a series of moves. The whole country went to Level 3, then three Border counties went to Level 4. Then home visits were banned.
The public health experts didn’t change their advice: a full-on Level 5 national lockdown was needed. As soon as possible.
In public the health experts said: lookit, we advise, the Government decides. It’s up to the politicians to make the decisions for the country. In private the message was starker: you are going to have to lock down eventually. And the sooner the better.
According to sources familiar with his thinking, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar – who had been highly, and publicly, critical of Nphet’s first attempt to bounce the Government into a lockdown – began to realise soon afterwards that the Government’s position might become untenable if the numbers continued to rise.
He told the Fine Gael parliamentary party that a “circuit-breaker” might be necessary.
He wrote an article for the Sunday Independent saying a “short, hard lockdown” might be needed.
Some of his colleagues, students of Varadkar’s modus operandi for years, began to take notice. So did his partners in Government. “Repositioning” was one colleague’s verdict. Behind the scenes Varadkar began to argue that a lockdown was becoming necessary. The ground was shifting.
Last Thursday week, Nphet played its strongest card yet. Following its weekly meeting, Holohan wrote to the Minister for Health expressing its “deep and escalating concern” at the deteriorating situation. Hospitalisations were rising quicker than it expected, indicating a “rapidly deteriorating disease trajectory nationally”.
It warned about health system capacity, pointing to “a very real risk that hospitals in particular will have difficulties in meeting demand in the coming days and weeks”.
The message was unambiguous: lock down now or you risk having a wave of cases swamping the health services. “The risk is too great to wait to take further action.” It was the starkest warning yet.
On Saturday, amid an air of impending crisis gathering around Government Buildings, a meeting was convened between the public health chiefs and senior Government figures. While there was much commentary in recent days suggesting there were no women at the meeting, in fact there were three: Liz Canavan, a senior civil servant who heads up the Covid group in Government; Deirdre Gillane, the Taoiseach’s chief-of-staff, and Anna Conlon, Eamon Ryan’s chief-of-staff.
They were joined by the Ministers responsible for the economy and public spending Michael McGrath and Paschal Donohoe, Ryan, Micheál Martin, Varadkar and the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, as well as the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach Martin Fraser, the State’s most powerful civil servant.
At this point McGrath, Donohoe and Donnelly were reluctant to accede to the lockdown request.
McGrath and Donohoe, who had a few days previously delivered their first budget supporting an economy which was ravaged by the pandemic, argued that there would be a surge in unemployment, with many jobs disappearing for good.
Donnelly thought that the country should move up through the gears to Level 4 before going to Level 5, and give the tightened restrictions a chance to work.
However, with Varadkar increasingly forthright and Martin also moving it was clear what direction the wind was blowing.
Both men were acutely aware of the politics. What Nphet had effectively done was to increase the price of being wrong for the politicians.
The public warnings meant that if the politicians failed to follow their advice, and the hospitals were overwhelmed in November, the Government would have nowhere to hide: its ability and credibility to manage the pandemic – and more broadly than that, to govern – would be destroyed.
And so although many senior figures were not convinced that the lockdown was needed, holding out against the Nphet advice turned into a political gamble that they were not prepared to take.
There were extensive contacts between the three leaders following the meeting and during the next day, Sunday. But by the time the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid met on Monday, the decision was more or less made.
By mid-afternoon on Monday, word began to filter through the Government bubble. There was shock in several quarters, among both insiders and outsiders, who had expected perhaps a move to Level 4, but not a complete lockdown. It was only, reasoned one, days since the ban on home visits was introduced and surely it would be given some time to see if it worked? It wouldn’t.
“It’s a massive failure of nerve,” said one source involved in the deliberations.
“Absolutely crazy,” said a high-ranking source.
“Terrible decision,” said another.
Wearing his concerned but resolute face, Martin alighted the steps in the central hall of Government Buildings to face the TV cameras, broadcasting live to a nation that already knew what it was about to be told: time to hunker down. Again.
“Even as the winter comes in, there is hope,” said Martin. “And there is light. If we pull hard together over the next six weeks we will have the opportunity to celebrate Christmas in a meaningful way.”
The Taoiseach didn’t explain what that meant.
The October-November restrictions are certainly less severe than the long lockdown of spring and early summer. Crucially, the schools remain open, though there is something approaching terror in Government that the teachers’ unions might not co-operate after next week’s mid-term break. One person speculates that the potential public reaction to a schools’ shutdown will keep teachers in the classrooms. The same person acknowledges that the biggest losers would be the Government.
But many businesses are chafing at the restrictions, while the myriad of contradictions and confusions at the heart of any such “blunderbuss” (in the words of one insider) approach are riling people in a way that they didn’t in April.
Public patience, and therefore co-operation, is fraying. There is open questioning of the Nphet advice within Government. There is also a sense both in Government and in Opposition that the administration’s credibility, and that of its leaders, has been damaged significantly by the events of the past few weeks.
“Failure of nerve” was a phrase used by several people.
“All they’ve achieved is a longer lockdown,” says one Minister. “We ended up going back with our tail between our legs.”