The Irish Times view on the pandemic: people expect to be levelled with

Public servants are showing us the best of ourselves

Gardaí stop and question people at a checkpoint on O’Connell Street in Dublin as the Covid-19 crisis continues. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Gardaí stop and question people at a checkpoint on O’Connell Street in Dublin as the Covid-19 crisis continues. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

It is within the power of every individual to ensure that we succeed in flattening the growth curve of the deadly coronavirus. Three weeks after the first social restrictions were introduced, there are early signs that that collective effort may be paying off. For its part, the State has succeeded in mobilising on a huge scale to meet this unprecedented challenge. Public servants – doctors, nurses, cleaners, politicians, civil servants, gardaí and others – are doing extraordinary work in demanding circumstances, and in the process showing us the best of ourselves.

Yet if we are to succeed, the Government must address some of the clear gaps and shortcomings in its approach. The first concerns testing. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the State is following the South Korean model, built around mass testing, contact tracing and isolation. To that end, Minister for Health Simon Harris said on March 19th, a target of 15,000 daily tests would be reached within days. Yet more than two weeks later, just 1,500 tests are being carried out each day, with the Government blaming a shortage of testing materials. Shortages are to be expected given global demand, but that was predictable. The truth is that until the State can dramatically widen its testing and laboratory capacities, we cannot begin to know the scale of the outbreak let alone hope to defeat it.

A second major shortcoming is in the supply of information. It has been far too difficult to obtain precise figures from health authorities on waiting times for sampling or lab processing; on the backlogs; or on the State’s stocks of protective equipment. There has been no consistent release of real-time data on intensive care units. We don’t know what hospitals are under pressure or where affected nursing homes are. Beyond reference to “underlying conditions” we are told nothing about how Covid-19 is interacting with other conditions, what comorbidities are being observed and what treatments are being used. If such data is available, it should be released. If it is not collated, we have a bigger problem.

While the authorities are naturally eager to publicise their achievements – such as the delivery of Chinese equipment last week – there appears to be a certain discomfort with scrutiny. Questions are not allowed at the morning media briefing at Government Buildings, where a civil servant lists the Government’s actions. Journalists attending a press briefing by Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe on Thursday were told to submit written questions in advance. This is unsatisfactory in a crisis where a thorough flow of information is essential to maintaining public confidence and buy-in. In communities across the country, people are meeting the challenge with resilience, patience and generosity. They don’t expect the Government to get everything right. But they are entitled to be levelled with.

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