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Diarmaid Ferriter: We have been infantilised with promises of Christmas

Government has promised us a slice of Christmas if we improve our ‘behaviour’

If the Government is hoping the chorus of criticism of its handling of the Covid-19 crisis will dissipate through our pulling together and sucking up the lockdown, it is likely to be disappointed.

This week the Taoiseach offered us admissions of failure, apparent in his contentions that a zero-Covid strategy for the island in not possible, that borders must remain open and that we will likely be subjected to the yo-yo of lockdowns indefinitely.

That this is not “living with Covid-19” is self-evident and another indication of mismanagement given that this was the mantra wrapped around the Government’s five-phase plan that, in any case, it refuses to follow.

We have been subjected to no shortage of admonishments in recent weeks. Prof Philip Nolan of Nphet was asked on Wednesday when we might expect the peak of Covid-19 deaths and cases, and his response was that “depends on how people are behaving. I don’t like using the word ‘behaving’ but it’s the only way to express it”.


We now have a layer of doctors and other highly qualified experts who are not convinced about the current approach

No, it is not. He should replace the word “behaving” with the word “living”. We have been infantilised with the promise that if we improve our “behaviour” we might get a slice of Christmas. To do what exactly? Shop and celebrate with the inevitable result that we will endure more lockdown?

Any realistic plan

Honing cliched words about resilience, solidarity and the “best of us” fills up the space that should be afforded to testing and tracing, hospital capacity, health staff shortages and airport and port traffic. We’ve all heard the exhausted Heaney line about wintering this one out, the problem being, there is no summer that is part of any realistic plan.

We now have a layer of doctors and other highly qualified experts who are not  convinced about the current approach. The Mater hospital’s infectious diseases consultant Prof Jack Lambert has argued that the Government so far has “sacrificed our economy for poorly thought through decisions, made in a void, without appropriate multi-sector stakeholder engagement” and that the State should be “finding ways to keep the virus at bay, not to count the numbers and to threaten lockdown measures which cause further erosions to our already fragile society”.

He was quickly shot down by Prof Nolan. But even the public health experts and epidemiologists who agree with Nphet’s stringent approach have frequently added the reminder that periods of lockdown should be used to address the systemic problems in the health service infrastructure, knowing full well, as we all do, that this will not happen.

Reports this week that the Government "fears" Nphet will advise another lockdown after Christmas highlight the extraordinary centralisation of power in Nphet

And the fragility referred to by Prof Lambert has the potential to be grave, not only in relation to other health problems, mental and physical, but in relation to social stability in what has been a remarkably stable country, politically and socially, for a long time.

It is obvious that Nphet, dominated by Department of Health and HSE voices, is not representative enough. Will more thought be given now to the suggestion in the Government’s document from June about the governance structures of Nphet that its composition “may change further over time in line with the expertise required across the response”?

Famous editorials

Reports this week that the Government “fears” Nphet will advise another lockdown after Christmas highlight the extraordinary centralisation of power in Nphet.

I was reminded of one of this newspaper’s famous editorials, from April 1951, when it reacted to the scuppering of then minister for health Noel Browne’s plan for improved mother and child healthcare at the behest of the Catholic bishops who regarded it as an unacceptable reach of State power: “The most serious revelation, however, is that the Roman Catholic Church would seem to be the effective government of this country.” Nphet appear to be the 2020 version of the Catholic bishops in 1951 and a Government duly obeys.

There was also a plan to spend just 45 minutes “debating” the extension of emergency health legislation which, to its credit, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties robustly challenged by reminding TDs of their obligations to properly scrutinise exceptionally coercive powers.

We need to remember a solemn contribution to the Dáil proceedings on March 27th when the Covid-19 emergency was beginning to hit home: “There is a fine balance to be struck between supporting a common message to the public and maintaining space for asking tough questions and pointing to areas where more action may be required.

“This is a balance which is particularly important for us and the media to consider. Over the past five decades, an entire discipline has developed to analyse how to get the best possible response to major emergencies.

“One consistent lesson from this work has been that we need to make sure there remains a space for debate and for challenging messages. Everyone being on the same side does not remove the need to ask questions.”

They were the words of Micheál Martin.