Swanking around New York during the week (along with the two other leaders of the Coalition Government, despite the return of the Dáil), Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was asked about criticisms of him in the recently published memoir of Dr Tony Holohan, the former chief medical officer who led the State’s public health response to Covid and became, for many, the face of the Government during the pandemic.
Holohan took exception to Varadkar’s infamous attack on the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) in October 2020, when the Government decided against putting the country into another lockdown, as he had recommended. This was not, to anyone who remembers the episode, a surprise; relations between the politicians and the Nphet experts had deteriorated sharply. But Holohan’s upset – and that of his wife, then suffering from terminal cancer – at Varadkar’s suggestion that Nphet members were somehow insulated from the consequences of the decisions they were urging on the Government, was understandable, justified and perhaps still a bit raw.
Varadkar, who for all his mistakes is a privately self-reflective and self-critical person, acknowledged he was wrong and apologised, though he also reflected on the genuine and legitimate differences then emerging between the health experts and political decision-makers. The truth is that under the intense pressures of the time, relations between the Government leaders and their health advisers cracked. That did not help good decision-making, particularly when the consequences of those decisions were – literally – life and death. That is one of the lessons to take out of it – better relations and clearer communication between the people responsible for guiding the country would have meant a better outcome.
But what of the rest of the lessons of the pandemic? Holohan’s book is the third that deals in depth with the period, and the Government’s response to the pandemic. Two others, by Jack Horgan-Jones of this parish with Hugh O’Connell, and another by Richard Chambers, were published last year.
And what of the State’s own efforts to discover the lessons from this unprecedented period in our history?
Even during the pandemic, the need to examine and evaluate the State’s response was acknowledged. As far back as September 2021, then-taoiseach Micheál Martin was accepting the value of an exercise to learn lessons for the future.
There has already been an evaluation of the lessons of Covid – but just for public health
“Without question, we have to evaluate how we performed, and learn lessons to equip us for the next emergency pandemic, or whatever. And those lessons right across the board,” he said.
He stressed that he didn’t want people put before an official inquiry accused of wrongdoing – but there should be an effort to evaluate which measures were wise, and what didn’t work, he said. “It can’t be long-fingered or anything like that, because we have to learn lessons from this pandemic.”
Martin and his successor have repeated the same sentiments on many occasions since. But there is no sign of the inquiry/evaluation/lookback/whatever you call it.
This week in New York, Varadkar was again asked about it. “We are going to have a Covid inquiry,” he said. “I hope to have the terms of reference to Government in the next two weeks, and I think it’ll be able to explore a lot of the different issues – it’s not going to be about putting anyone in the dock, it won’t be a witch hunt. But it will be about finding out what we did right and what we did wrong.”
Sounds reasonable. But why has it taken so long?
In fact, there has already been an evaluation of the lessons of Covid – but just for public health. At the beginning of last year – six months after it had made the decision in principle – the Government asked Prof Hugh Brady, president of Imperial College London, to identify public health lessons from the pandemic. Brady and his Public Health Reform Expert Advisory Group sent their report to the Minister last September. It took 12 months for it to be quietly published earlier this month. It recommends, needless to say, the establishment of another official body, Public Health Ireland. Aside from that, it’s a comprehensive evaluation of the public health lessons of the pandemic, and the needs for the future.
The Government was right not to take the advice of the zero Coviders, who advocated for the longest and most intense lockdowns
What it isn’t is an examination of how the wider health authorities worked with each other and the political leadership of the country to manage the crisis. About how Holohan and Varadkar and Martin and the others communicated and reached their decisions. There is no mention – because such issues are outside the group’s remit – of the length or intensity of the lockdowns. There’s no mention of the economic and social costs – the rise in domestic violence, for example, or the educational harm done to children, or the irreversible life-changes many older people experienced as a result of prolonged isolation.
In general, the Irish reaction to the pandemic was better than that in many countries. As the Brady report noted, our death rates were lower and our vaccination rates higher than in many places. Despite the pressure from that quarter, the Government was right not to take the advice of the zero Coviders, who advocated for the longest and most intense lockdowns, and in many cases opposed coming out of them when we did. Maybe the inquiry might ask the zero heroes about it now.
There are many vitally important questions that need answers. That’s not to say we should embark on a blame game. I think most people would accept that most of the decisions taken by Government, in intense and utterly unprecedented circumstances, were taken in good faith. But we need to find out what we got right and what we got wrong. The way this process has been dragged out, you would be forgiven for thinking that some people don’t want to answer those questions at all.