It’s time for the National Emergency Co-ordination Group to step in
Eoghan Murphy: This pre-existing structure was designed with pandemics in mind
The National Emergency Coordination Group was designed for management of any kind of emergency, from adverse weather to terrorism or pandemics. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has done an important job in guiding us successfully through the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic. But we are now in the next phase, a longer and more complex one which may require a new structure to guide the Government’s decision-making.
In fact, not a new structure but the existing and proven model for emergency management in this country: the National Emergency Co-ordination Group (NECG).
In March 2018 we had a national lockdown, more severe than experienced during Covid-19 so far, though a lot shorter. Storm Emma brought record levels of snow, our second national red weather alert since Storm Ophelia of the previous September. As it approached the NECG kicked into gear. For a number of days people were told not to leave their homes. Only emergency services were on the road, and for periods not even them, such was the danger to be outside.
The effort was managed incredibly well by our civil service, public sector workers and State bodies. People may remember Sean Hogan (the senior civil servant for emergency management), who was to storms then what Tony Holohan has been to this pandemic. The NECG would meet in the National Emergency Coordination Centre (NECC), a series of secure rooms in the Department of Agriculture, where the committee was plugged into every State body and every county. There, Met Éireann would feed in the science of the storm to the committee.
This structure for emergency management was not designed just with weather events in mind, but for any kind of emergency – terrorism, for example, and pandemics
This consisted not just of specialists in weather and storms, but in representatives of all the relevant sectors and departments – education, transport, business, the defence forces, the local authorities etc. The likely impact would be discussed, the risks measured, the possible responses picked through, and then decisions taken.
Once the decisions were made these would be communicated to the public – via the media waiting outside at the briefing podium – but also directly to the relevant sectors. In this way, there was an understanding of the challenges across government, with sectoral input and expertise, leading to a broad consensus on the way forward.
As lead department for extreme weather events, the Department of Housing chaired the meetings and I, as minister for housing at the time, was responsible. But it was often the case that ministers in other departments would attend. This was where political accountability came in. On a number of occasions, the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar attended and the Cabinet was included via conference call directly from the NECC.
Tried and trusted structure
This structure for emergency management was not designed just with weather events in mind, but for any kind of emergency – terrorism, for example, and pandemics. Though Covid-19 may not have changed since March, our understanding of it has.
As we look to a long-term “living with” the virus strategy, one that needs to balance Covid-19 risks with other health concerns, and with wider societal concerns, perhaps now is the time to return to the tried and trusted structure of the NECG. This is not to criticise Nphet. In the initial phase of the pandemic I saw first-hand the critical role that they played then. It is only to ask: would something different work better now?
The NECG would be chaired by the Minister for Health, attended by other Ministers as needed. Nphet would give the science and the data to all of the stakeholders in the room, who would discuss and plan the steps to be taken depending on the risks but also, crucially, the capacity of the various sectors to respond.
So the Department of Transport would be there to consult on transport issues, the Gardaí would advise on what they could do or what powers they might need, the Department of Enterprise would be speaking for (and consulting with) businesses, and so on.
A Cabinet sub-committee would not be needed, nor any other type of intermediary. For very big decisions (a change in levels, for example), the Cabinet could be asked for consent by the Minister, or the Taoiseach could chair the meeting directly, as happened during the weather lockdowns of the recent past. This is not a new invention, this is how it worked in the very recent past, and this model was designed to be adaptable to any type of emergency that we face.
No more silos; no sector left outside; no space for public misunderstandings. The Minister and Government in charge.Everyone in one room: politicians, experts and officials, with the media waiting outside to get the one message, and the various sectors and stakeholders ready to act.
This type of clarity and unity served us very well through some recent life-threatening events. Perhaps it is worth considering could the NECG format serve us equally as well now.
Eoghan Murphy is Fine Gael TD for Dublin Bay South