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Fintan O’Toole: Criticism is not unpatriotic – awkward questions save lives

Mistakes are inevitable in this crisis. What matters is learning from them

In July 1915, patriotic fervour was at fever pitch in Britain. Criticism of the conduct of the Great War was close to treason. But Bernard Shaw insisted that "if the English people stop the fiercest criticism of their rulers on Monday, the soldiers will be in brown paper boots on Tuesday; munitions will run short on Wednesday; and before Sunday ten thousand men will lose their lives unnecessarily". In a national emergency, closing down one's critical faculties isn't patriotic. It's the best way to guarantee that mistakes multiply and that poor decisions are not reversed.

This is hard to accept if you are trying to manage a pandemic under almost intolerable pressure. When you have your finger in the dyke, it is only natural to give another finger to the onlooker who tells you that some water is leaking through. But it is precisely because of the pressure that scrutiny is more necessary than ever. We are in the hands of human beings who are trying to deal as well as they can with a crisis unprecedented in their lifetimes caused by a virus whose full effects are still unknown. Honest mistakes in this arena are not shameful. They are inevitable.

Extraordinarily, the emergency team seems to function not merely as an advisory body but in effect as the actual decision-maker

What matters is learning from them. Questioning is the immune system of crisis management. It is the healthy response to error. The problem we have at the moment is that this immune system is too weak. Its fraility was dramatised on Friday evening when the Taoiseach, having announced the plans for a gradual easing of the lockdown, refused to take questions from the press.

Diminished

But it runs deeper. The authority of the Cabinet is diminished by the fact that three of its members have been voted out of office but remain in Government. The Dáil as a whole has an attenuated existence and its committees are in abeyance. Neither elected representatives nor the media have access to the meetings of by far the most influential body in the management of the crisis, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

Extraordinarily, the emergency team seems to function not merely as an advisory body but in effect as the actual decision-maker. On April 23rd, Minister for Health Simon Harris told the Dáil: "For the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, to make these decisions, all of us as a people have a job to do." The decisions he was referring to were those to do with the lockdown and how it might be lifted. No one would suggest that the Government should not be profoundly influenced by the emergency team but there is a vast difference between taking advice and handing over decision-making responsibility.

Serious mistakes

And the plain truth is that NPHET has made serious mistakes. According to the published minutes, the first time nursing homes were mentioned at an emergency team session was at its 12th meeting, on March 10th: “The restrictions on visitors to nursing homes was discussed. It was agreed that the current practice of restricting visitors to nursing homes was not required and this would be kept under review… Action: NPHET recommends that unilateral/widespread restriction of visiting to nursing homes, hospitals and healthcare facilities is not required at this time.”

So the only "action" recommended was no action. It does not require hindsight to know that this was wrong – nursing homes were already banning visitors because they knew full well what would happen if the virus began to infect their vulnerable residents. And it is even harder to understand how, as Stephen Donnelly pointed out in the Dáil, playgrounds were closed down while nursing homes and residential institutions were kept open: "NPHET made the decision to close the playgrounds a week before it decided that support was needed for nursing homes."

The task of restarting society and the economy while maintaining safety is one of the most difficult the State has ever faced

It may seem plausible to suggest that these are questions best left to whatever review or inquiry will be established when the crisis is over. But we cannot afford to view the official response in the rear-view mirror. Because it will continue to unfold for many months yet, it is crucial not just that the system is learning from its mistakes but that it is rethinking the processes that led to them. It is not at all clear that this is happening.

Calm authority

Citizens have, for the most part, behaved very well. The consensus among political parties has been impressive. The Taoiseach – admittedly with the inestimable advantage of comparison to Boris Johnson and Donald Trump – has exuded calm authority. But that authority cannot be taken for granted. We are coming into a period when nerves are beginning to fray. What has to be communicated in a slow, staged opening is much more complex and nuanced than the simple message in March to lock the feck down.

Questions, especially the awkward ones, save lives. The task of restarting society and the economy while maintaining safety is one of the most difficult the State has ever faced. No group of experts, however distinguished, and no cohort of civil servants, however capable, can manage it alone. It demands the mobilisation of the widest possible range of knowledge and insight. It will not be achieved if we do not make room for those vital words “Why?” and “On the other hand…”