John McManus: God forbid Stephen Donnelly should have a good idea

Vaccine proposal was killed off by a combination of Government’s terror and Opposition’s opportunism

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly’s proposal to look at prioritising the vaccination of 18-30 year olds was killed off before lunchtime. File photograph:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly’s proposal to look at prioritising the vaccination of 18-30 year olds was killed off before lunchtime. File photograph:Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

What happens now, in the unlikely event that Stephen Donnelly has a genuinely good idea? Given the speed with which the Minister for Health’s proposal to look at prioritising the vaccination of 18-30 year olds was killed off, the answer has to be a rather dispiriting: absolutely nothing.

Donnelly’s idea – floated out on Saturday via a story in this newspaper – was stone dead by lunchtime on Sunday. The Minister recanted publicly, citing the opinion of the deputy chief medical officer that it was a non-runner. In truth it was a fig leaf; the idea did not even survive the Saturday lunchtime talk shows.

And this should concern us. There was merit in the idea. It had been suggested previously by, among others, Kingston Mills, professor of experimental immunology at Trinity College.

Although careful to emphasise that he was not advocating vaccinating teenagers over vulnerable adults, Mills said it made sense to focus on the groups that had the highest risk of infection.

“But once you’ve done that, and vaccinated all the over-60 year olds, which are the most vulnerable, and then anyone with underlying health conditions, then you move to those which are at the highest risk of infection, which are the under-30s,” Mills  told Newstalk on Saturday.

Anyone who saw the hordes of young people out and about enjoying the sunshine over the weekend can easily see his point.

There is even a sort of real-life experiment, which could inform our thinking on the issue – assuming we want it informed, which is debatable. The spike seen in Italy’s death toll this month is attributed by some observers to a decision to over-prioritise young workers.

“If the primary goal is to avert deaths, the takeaway from Italy seems to be: Once that work is done [frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents], keep giving doses to the old, and be very selective about which younger workers might be eligible,” according to a report in The Washington Post earlier this month.

Plenty of meat there for a robust interrogation of Donnelly’s idea if anyone was interested, but they weren’t. Instead, the idea was killed off by a combination of terror on the part of his Government colleagues and political opportunism on the part of the Opposition.

It was disappointing to hear one Opposition leader, who should know better, dismiss the idea on Saturday, saying that what people wanted was a firm timetable for reopening up the country – subject to the assumption that there would not be any more issues with vaccine supplies or the arrival of any new variants.

The circularity of the statement is staggering. There really are only two things that can be said about the next few months with any certainty and that is that there will be issues with vaccine supplies – both positive and negative – and that there will be new variants of the disease; quite a nasty one seems to be developing in India at the moment.

Against this background, the Government has to constantly keep looking at what it is doing and asking itself whether it could be doing things differently and better. As the facts change, so must policy. And that should be the message coming from the Opposition.

The fact that the opposite seems to be the case, presumably comes from a common reading of the public mood by both Opposition and Government politicians. Having spent most of the previous week trying to convince the increasingly impatient and anxious public that the they actually did know what they were doing and had the situation under control, Donnelly’s Cabinet colleagues must have been something less than pleased to hear him suggest ripping up the plan and starting again.

It’s understandable, but it does not mean there was no merit to Donnelly’s proposal. What it meant was that nobody – either in Government, Opposition, the Department of Health or members of the ever-growing number of committees that are running the show – had the intellectual or emotional bandwidth to engage with the idea. They are all, to a greater or lesser degree, overwhelmed and exhausted.

And that is a problem. Anyone who thinks the current plan – such as it is – cannot be improved on, does not know much about planning. There is a much overused quote attributed to some Prussian general or other to the effect that no plan, however good, survives contact with the enemy. Covid-19 is a very formidable enemy and fresh thinking needs to be encouraged, not strangled at birth.

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