The Irish Times view on the coronavirus response: the case for transparency

The longer the crisis continues, the more difficult it has become to see the processes behind political decision-making

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris at a media briefing on Covid-19 last month. Photograph:   Dara Mac Donaill

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris at a media briefing on Covid-19 last month. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

For senior Government ministers, civil servants and public health officials, these are extraordinarily difficult times. Covid-19 is a once-in-a-century crisis – an epochal event that has brought our society and economy to a standstill and presented senior figures in national administration with the most grave and consequential decisions they will ever face. They take these life-and-death decisions while grappling with an enemy about which we know very little, using a playbook that is being written and revised in real time.

Neither the very real difficulties they face nor the good faith with which they are clearly acting is any reason for easing the democratic scrutiny on which our system of government rests, however. On the contrary; the bigger the crisis, the more accountability matters.

Yet the longer the crisis continues, the more difficult it has become to see the processes and the thinking behind political decision-making. That is partly a result of timing. The coronavirus epidemic hit in the post-election interregnum, meaning it fell to a Government without a mandate to coordinate the response and a semi-functioning Oireachtas to provide the parliamentary checks and balances. Slow progress on the formation of a new government hasn’t helped.

At the same time, the Government appears to have devolved decision-making to the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPhet), a committee of health specialists led by the chief medical officer. While NPhet is more transparent that its British equivalent, whose membership is a secret, its workings are hard to decipher. As Labour leader Alan Kelly observed in the Dáil on Thursday, it’s not clear who appoints its members, it does not provide timely minutes of its discussions, and we know little about what happens in its 11 sub-groups. Nor do we understand what involvement ministers have in its decision-making.

It’s quite right that our response should be driven above all by public health, and that health professionals should be central to decision-making. But claiming that the Government simply acts on “the” science, as ministers have said, is not good enough. While politicians see doubt as a weakness, for scientists it is essential. In the fight against Covid-19, a disease we know so little about, specialists will disagree and the correct course will not always be obvious.

That’s why the current crisis engages profound ethical and moral dilemmas – because it involves weighing a set of competing imperatives, including public health, unemployment, mental health and social solidarity. These are the ultimate political decisions. Nobody expects the authorities to get every decision right. But being open about the thinking behind those decisions will go a long way to retaining public support and trust in the difficult months ahead.

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