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Sacred cows of Ireland’s Covid-19 response called into question by softly spoken medic

Hospital consultant and professor of biology asks whether ‘institutions or individuals may have benefited in terms of status, power or wealth from the continuation of pandemic measures’

Prof Martin Cormican: he had an important role in developing infection prevention techniques for controlling Covid. Photograph: Colin Keegan/ Collins

Fear, according to Prof Martin Cormican, is a “dangerous tool”.

“It is very difficult to calibrate fear, and very difficult to remove later if the dose is too high”.

The criticism is contained in a paper by Cormican to the Irish Society of Clinical Microbiologists last November which was not reported at the time.

The softly-spoken medic has expressed these views before, but their scope within the paper and the targeting of the sacred cows of pandemic-era thinking is remarkable.

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The volume of testing done was a “virtue signal”, testing “generated a mass of anxiety and a mass of waste and made some people very wealthy”; isolation policies deprived dependent people of adequate care; the evidence of two-metre social distancing was “very poor or non-existent”; it is “very difficult” to see how widespread mask-use made “any difference”, while their day-to-day use was “useless” and “hugely wasteful”.

He starkly asks whether “institutions or individuals may have benefited in terms of status, power or wealth from the continuation of pandemic measures”.

When the pandemic hit, Cormican, a hospital consultant and professor of biology, was clinical lead on infection prevention and control for the HSE. Clinical leads are senior doctors whose expertise on policy and practice is given to the HSE – they have no executive power but significant influence.

Cormican has been likened to a monk by contemporaries – unable to tell a lie or betray his conscience. A disciplined fitness enthusiast, to deal with the pressures of his job he can be found practising his black-belt level karate in his garden at night or out running. He completed the 2019 Dublin Marathon in a time of 3 hours and 36 minutes at the age of 57.

In 2020 he had an important role in developing infection prevention techniques for controlling Covid. An early sceptic on mask use, he insisted his dissent be recorded from votes at the Expert Advisory Group to Nphet recommending widespread masking by health workers. Curiously, given his eminence and experience, he was not put on Nphet until 2021, something he has said puzzled him.

Contemporaries wondered if a rocky relationship with chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan was the cause – Cormican has said they previously had “significant differences of opinion”. Holohan later said he had the height of admiration for Cormican, reflecting it may have been a mistake not to have him on Nphet sooner.

One Nphet member recalls him as a “gentleman” whose ideas were given “more than a fair hearing” at Nphet and at times a lot of support, but “more often than not his approach was seen by almost everyone as too risky”.

He was never counted among Holohan’s inner circle, which made the big policy calls in 2021 in concert with a tight group of officials, advisers and politicians. But over time his views were very influential.

In the summer 2021 he authored a series of papers for Nphet advocating that the large-scale testing system should be dismantled and the entire system for managing the spread of the disease scaled back. While implementation of these principles was delayed by a large autumn wave of infection driven by the Delta variant, and then a massive wave of Omicron over Christmas, they provided the backbone for the rapid normalisation of society last spring.

His intervention comes as the Government quietly prepares the ground for a Covid inquiry that is due to be established in the middle of the year. Discussions are under way on its structure, whether it will have public sittings, the terms of reference, and who is to chair it. A senior Government source says it will not be designed to find fault with or praise any individual or body, but to establish facts to inform the management of future emergencies. There are nerves about people involved “lawyering up” and it becoming a media circus.

An associated public health review of the pandemic has not been published yet but has been discussed by Coalition leaders. It is understood to recommend an overhaul of the public health system, including creation of a statutory public health body and for a public health representative to be put on the HSE board.

Cormican argues that while Ireland’s management of the pandemic was “better” than many countries, the response was characterised by a degree of obfuscation, an over-reliance on fear, and a failure to assess or account for the impact of lockdowns. His criticism of the impact on school-going children is powerful, and he is not alone in his assessment that it went on for too long, had a limited evidence base, and caused untold damage.

During one 2021 meeting senior HSE official Kevin Kelleher told a meeting involving Minister for Education Norma Foley that “one of the greatest regrets I have in my very long career is that we allowed schools to be closed” and that the “massive” impact on children was “totally wrong”.

This intervention will guarantee the focus of the inquiry will be not on just the death toll associated with the pandemic but on the length and severity of the lockdowns, which will prove uncomfortable for all concerned.