Paul Hosford: A week when public health message got lost

Paul Hosford: A week when public health message got lost

In the earliest days of these strange, uncertain times, much of the public was in search of a constant.

As the pandemic raged around us and the nightly numbers added more and more people to the names of those who would never get the send-off they deserved, it was the Chief Medical Officer who provided an unlikely totem.

Dr Tony Holohan became a household name, the most recognisable face in the country, and the subject of Superman murals. 

When Dr Holohan stepped down from his role to care for his ill wife, the daily case numbers were just nine.

While Dr Holohan’s method of communication can often be quite technical, a narrative formed after his departure that the country missed his no-nonsense approach and that this contributed to a reversal of Ireland’s fortunes in fighting the virus. 

While that is extremely harsh on Dr Holohan’s deputy, Dr Ronan Glynn, it does speak to how the public has seen him: as a clear communicator and a steady, comforting hand.

How then, in less than a week back on the job has the messaging around the returning CMO become so garbled, so contentious and so far removed from the public health message that needs to be going out?

Saturday: 10 Deaths, 613 Cases

An alarming press released dropped into inboxes around 5.30pm on Saturday, alerting the public to 10 new Coronavirus deaths. 

It was the first double-digit death toll since May. 

Despite the fact that eight of those were historic notifications, the figure was bracing. 

It also coincided with the return of Dr Holohan, though few knew that he was back.

Dr Holohan says that he made contact with Health Minister Stephen Donnelly and told him that due to the growing number of cases, he would be convening NPHET the following day. 

This conversation, Dr Holohan says, did not include any details of specific instructions NPHET might give, but the medic’s “grave concern” was relayed. 

Mr Donnelly would then relay this information to the taoiseach.

Sunday: 0 Deaths, 364 Cases

Dr Holohan spoke to Mr Donnelly again on Sunday morning before the CMO departed for the Department of Health, where he chaired a three-hour NPHET meeting. 

On this call, Mr Donnelly would be appraised of a possible move to level 4. 

At the meeting, NPHET would recommend Ireland be put on level 5 of the framework of restrictions. 

They (the Government) felt that NPHET was trying to “box them in” to a decision

Dr Holohan says that around “tea-time” he phoned Mr Donnelly, to discuss the recommendations.

But at 8.30pm, news leaked, sparking a week of recriminations and distractions, all while the number of cases of Covid-19 ticked up and up.

Throughout the day, speculation had mounted that the government could move the entire country to level 4 the following day or later in the week, but government sources claimed to be “blindsided” by the level 5 suggestion. 

They felt that NPHET was trying to “box them in” to a decision.

Dr Holohan and Mr Donnelly have since been clear that Dr Holohan made reference to upping the alert level on Saturday, but the notion of level 5 caught people by surprise and led to 24 hours of panic, starting with Sunday’s Nine O’Clock news.

Monday: 0 Deaths, 518 Cases

Before Dr Holohan arrived at Government Buildings to meet Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan on Monday morning, social media had begun to report on something else — queues at Smyths toy stores across the country.

Hastily dispatched reporters were told of empty shelves because the company had been unable to ship stock from warehouses to stores in time for the unexpected rush as the public panicked about getting the chance to do their Christmas shopping in the event of a return to lockdown.

The meeting of the three party leaders and the CMO went on for a number of hours and was described as “tense”, “fraught” but “very robust at times” by those in attendance. 

The government was unhappy at what they felt was an attempt to “bounce them into a decision” with the leak of the letter and it pressed for more clear answers on how long a lockdown, which would have been announced for four weeks, might go on and how it might be exited.

Unhappy with the answers to those queries, Cabinet would decide to put the entire country on level 3, a decision which would be announced in a 9pm live address by Mr Martin.

The meeting of the three party leaders and the CMO went on for a number of hours and was described as
The meeting of the three party leaders and the CMO went on for a number of hours and was described as “tense”, “fraught” but “very robust at times”.

After initially declining to hold a press briefing, the Government sent Mr Donnelly, Mr Ryan, and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe out at 9.30pm.

But while that briefing was on in the bunker of Government Buildings, the war was raging on RTÉ One. 

As Mr Donnelly assured the press that the government and NPHET were still on good terms, Mr Varadkar was taking the team to task. 

He said that NPHET‘s recommendation “came out of the blue” — a line he repeated in the Dáil on Thursday. He said their plan was “not thought through” and accused the medics of being divorced from the economic reality of the pandemic.

Tuesday: 1 Death, 432 Cases

On Tuesday, as the country faced heading into Level 3 at midnight, there was less focus on the restrictions than there was the row, despite the conciliatory tone struck by Mr Donnelly on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland

Indeed, members of NPHET agreed that the communication lines had broken down.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald McDonald said the government was “squaring up to NPHET

But in the centre of all of the anger, there was a very real issue — Ireland would face a stricter regime of restrictions from midnight, but the focus was on the process of a message rather than the public health advice, as another 432 cases were announced. 

Mr Donnelly’s appearance on RTÉ’s Prime Time, where he claimed to have not seen the tánaiste’s comments, stretched credulity, as it felt like the political drama had overtaken the health emergency.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald McDonald said the government was “squaring up to NPHET” and called Mr Varadkar’s comments “unseemly”.

Sources close to Mr Varadkar said that he was reflecting real frustration within his party at NPHET but said that he had “perhaps not communicated that the best”.

Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney heard about the Level 5 suggestion in the media.
Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney heard about the Level 5 suggestion in the media.

Why, then, it was questioned, did the government claim to be taken by surprise? Was this information not fed up the chain of command? Simon Coveney says that he heard about it on the news?

Labour TD Duncan Smith described this week as “another episode of absolute calamity” for the Government, one where the messaging was lost because of a basic error in communication.

A Fine Gael TD agreed, saying that the week’s events “must not be repeated over something so basic”.

This assessment is hard to argue with. If members of NPHET and the health minister are discussing a potential upping of restrictions, should the Cabinet not be appraised? Should they not be on standby and ready to make a decision?

The week highlighted a failure to communicate. Unanswered texts and unspecified concerns are not enough to avoid garbled messaging.

In a time when the clarity of the public health message is paramount, the Government and NPHET must take this as a learning experience and recalibrate their lines of communication.

Otherwise, the message — and the fight against Covid-19 — will be lost.

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