Nphet members will be asked to deliver ‘key messages’, says Government

Alan Kelly told Dáil it seemed public health officials had been ‘gagged’

Labour Leader Alan Kelly Kelly said he would have concerns as there are times when ‘we have to hear directly from public health experts in relation to specifics’. Photograph Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) will not be prevented from giving media interviews or press conferences but they will be given a briefing on “key messages” before they speak to reporters, the Government has said.

Speaking after Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, the Government spokesman insisted that “nobody is going to stop Nphet from speaking about what they want to speak about.

However, he said that requests for interviews with members of the body should be routed through the Government Information Service (GIS) or the Department of Health and they would be supplied with "key messages" to convey. The key messages would be agreed on internally with input from senior officials, ministers and public health experts.

“GIS will not veto anyone,” he said. “It’s about co-ordinating the key messages.”


Nphet people won’t be stopped and have never been stopped,” he added.

Some journalists and media outlets found over the weekend, however, that Nphet members were said by GIS and the Department of Health to be “unavailable” when they had indicated a willingness to be interviewed.

In the Dáil, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said as long as he is Taoiseach there will never ever be an attempt, in any shape or form, to undermine the independence or transparency of public health advice.

Mr Martin continued to defend the Government’s decision that all communications about Covid are to be managed through the Government Information Service, based in Government Buildings.

Mr Martin was addressing Leaders' Questions in the Dáil on Tuesday, during which Labour leader Alan Kelly asked what was going on regarding communications with Nphet and that it seemed they had been "gagged".

“Why is this change happening now as regards the process by which Nphet communicate with the public and you’re responsible for it,” Mr Kelly said.

“Why now? Is it because what happened last Thursday in relation to information coming out from the Nphet meeting before Government made a decision and if it is just say so.”

Mr Kelly said he would have concerns as there are times when “we have to hear directly from public health experts in relation to specifics”.

The Tipperary TD said the main confusion last week, in relation to face masks, PCR tests and travel, antigen testing, Hepa filters, wasn’t from Nphet but instead the Government. He said Government Ministers and their failures in communicating Covid policy changes had created an “omnishambles” last week.

Mr Martin said it was extremely important that public health advice is independent, transparent and is seen.

He said all press offices and departments have been asked to ensure that Nphet spokespeople are facilitated in making media appearances in the context of Government policy.

He said the Government would coordinate this “so we don’t have six spokespeople out on the one day, as opposed to maybe two or three, that there is a synchronizing, that there is a proper coordination”.

“That is something that I don’t think anybody can quibble with and that’s the position,” he added.

Mr Martin said journalists should continue to contact HSE and the Department of Health to request interviews with public health officials.

Later, in the Seanad, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that he doesn’t anticipate the latest Covid-19 restrictions being lifted prior to January 9th.

Mr Varadkar said the public and businesses should be operating on the basis that restrictions will be in place until “at least January 9th”.

“Generally in our experience of the pandemic, when restrictions are imposed they tend to be extended, not reversed sooner than the date designated,” he told the Seanad on Tuesday.

“I think we need to bear that in mind, any time I hear anyone say ‘it’s just for a few weeks’ in this pandemic, I always say right back to them how many times have you said that and it turned out to be for a few months.

“That’s why we always make decisions mindful of the fact that what might appear to be a temporary measure can be one that lasts for months and even years.”

He said he hoped 2022 would be the year the country moves away from restrictions.

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times