Last week, two of the three principal arms of the State – the Dáil and the judiciary – morphed into drama queens. They completely misinterpreted expert advice on the management of the coronavirus crisis. The State had hitherto been good at projecting a sense of calm and at delivering clear and consistent messages to the public. Now, there was panic, not among ordinary citizens, but within the political and legal elites.
A garbled, alarmist version of this very specific advice then spread through the top layers of the State apparatus like fake news on social media
This story started with a very sensible piece of advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team. Fans of Star Trek will have understood it immediately: never put all your ranking officers on the same space shuttle. If you have a leadership team in close physical contact with each other, and one of them tests positive for Covid-19, they will all have to be tested and to self-isolate for 14 days. This could knock out the top management all at once. The advice, therefore, is: don’t have all your core management group in the same room for more than two hours at a time.
This guidance surfaced last Tuesday when the Oireachtas special committee on Covid-19 response was convening to hear its first witnesses. The point at issue was not about the politicians on the committee. It was about the expert witnesses scheduled to speak to them that day: the chief medical officer, Tony Holohan; the secretary-general of the Department of Health, Jim Breslin; the chief executive of the Health Service Executive, Paul Reid; Anne O'Connor, who is responsible for testing and tracing; and Colm Henry, chief clinical officer of the HSE. You don't need to be a genius or a Star Trek fan to know that putting our equivalents of "Bones" McCoy, Mr Spock and Lieut Uhura on the same shuttle was best avoided.
As Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, explained to Sarah McInerney on RTÉ radio on Thursday: “That’s where the advice comes from . . . In the context of the [Oireachtas] committee, it’s the idea of not having the chief medical officer, the CEO of the HSE and the secretary general of the Department of Health all taken out of commission at the same time should a case [of Covid-19] be reported in the Dáil.”
But a garbled, alarmist version of this very specific advice then spread through the top layers of the State apparatus like fake news on social media. First, the advice was inflated to mean that all TDs could spend no longer than two hours in the Dáil chamber – even if each of them sat two metres apart. This was pure hysteria.
Then, on Wednesday, this viral overreaction spread to the courts. Mr Justice Peter Kelly, president of the High Court, read a statement on behalf of the Chief Justice and presidents of all the courts, who had presumably engaged in a hurried consultation with each other. These senior judges referred to what was going on in the Oireachtas and "what appears to be additional safety considerations beyond those already published". As a result, Mr Justice Kelly announced, all physical court sittings would be limited to no more than two hours. This would make the conduct of trials and of ordinary court business extremely difficult.
Even in the context of a major crisis, these are very big decisions – shrinking the already very constrained operation of parliament and drastically restricting the operation of the justice system. Before they were made, one would expect two questions to have been asked.
The politicians and the judges need to get a grip and make sure there is no repeat of this hysteria. We are in a very difficult phase of crisis management
First, can we see the written advice, assuming it exists? Secondly, what are the implications of what we are doing for the rest of Irish society? There were only two possibilities, both of them mind-boggling. If the two-hour rule applied to everyone, supermarkets (to take one obvious example) would have to close because they would be unable to manage the constant rotation of staff. The general easing of lockdown restrictions would be clearly wrong and would have to be reversed. But if the two-hour rule did not apply to other people, why not? The only explanation would be that the safety of politicians and judges is more important than that of supermarket workers – a weird Dr Strangelove-type message to be sending out when solidarity is so crucial.
Either way, the social and economic implications would be enormous. Yet they seem, in this panic, not even to have been considered. Two of the three main arms of the State, acting on mangled misinformation, managed, over the course of 48 hours, to turn wild overreaction into official policy. If some kids had spread this kind of thing on Instagram, there would be much tut-tutting among the political and judicial classes.
The politicians and the judges need to get a grip and make sure there is no repeat of this hysteria. We are in a very difficult phase of crisis management, when the rules for public conduct are becoming more complex. Messages from the top must be clear, coherent and based on calmly considered evidence. As Mr Spock’s maxim puts it: “Insufficient facts always invite danger.” It is easier for the rest of us to follow the rules if those in charge refrain from making up new ones every time they get in a funk.