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Did “someone close to Stephen Donnelly” try to silence a doctor?

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Yesterday, Dr. Anthony O’Connor, a consultant gastroenterologist (the speciality dealing with ailments of the stomach and digestive system and not, notably, dealing with respiratory diseases like Covid 19) announced that he would no longer continue to tweet about the Covid 19 crisis – or indeed tweet at all – after “somebody close to Stephen Donnelly” told him that his “advocacy was undermining his professionalism and clinical role”.

Here’s his tweet, issued shortly before he deleted his account:

Obviously, the implication and allegation was very serious: That a Government minister, acting through close associates, was trying to intimidate and silence critics.

The allegation carried a political edge, too: Dr. O’Connor is not merely a gastroenterologist; he’s presently running to be the next Chairman of the Irish Labour Party. So not only was a medic being silenced, but a political opponent, to boot. If true, it would be a stunningly inappropriate act by a member of the Government, or his agents.

Dr. O’Connor has, it’s true, been a staunch and persistent critic of the Government over Covid. He’s in the “more restrictions” camp, and in recent weeks has tended towards the “zero covid” approach. Back in August last year, in fact, he was advocating, or coming close to advocating, zero covid in an article in the Journal:

“There are only four routes out of the situation we’re in. Two of those – a vaccine or an effective cure – don’t exist.

This leaves us with the madness of a laissez-faire, herd immunity approach, or a New Zealand-esque, all-island Zero Covid policy which the government appears to see as unfeasible.

If all other options are off the table, all we can do is try our best to live alongside Sars-Cov-2 with as little disruption as possible until a vaccine or cure arrives.”

In other words, per Doc O’Connor, the only route out of Covid that wasn’t non-existent, or “madness”, was zero covid.

It is worth noting again, at this point, that Dr. O’Connor is a gastroenterologist. Perfectly entitled to express his opinion, and more qualified than a lay person – but not, by any stretch of the imagination, an expert in the management of pandemics.

So why would Stephen Donnelly try to silence him?

Well, here’s the story as the Irish Independent tells it:

In a Twitter direct message, seen by, public relations consultant Conor Dempsey suggested to Dr O’Connor that people may see him “so stressed” on social media that they “might be concerned” if they were referred to him for treatment.

He wrote: “I hope it does not offend you, but do you ever wonder if some of the scrapes you get into online undermine your reputation? I mean that in the sense that people may see you as being so stressed, which you are very entitled to be, that they might be concerned if they are then referred to you for treatment?….

….Mr Donnelly has previously confirmed that Mr Dempsey, whose LinkedIn profile lists him as principal at Dempsey Corporate, worked for him in a voluntary capacity during his first general election campaign in 2011 when he was elected as an Independent TD.

First of all, it’s hard to read the message sent to Dr. O’Connor as any kind of threat, or act of intimidation. Frankly, it reads like good PR advice from a PR consultant, more than it reads like any kind of effort to “silence” the doctor.

Second of all, the doctor’s implication appears to be that anybody who happens to be reasonably close to a minister is automatically speaking on behalf of that minister in all of their private communications. That’s a little paranoid, to put it mildly. There’s no reason whatever to suspect that it was the case in this instance.

Nonetheless, of course, the story ran wild on twitter yesterday, with the Minister and the Government being condemned from all sides for malignantly abusing their influence to silence a critic.

In this case, however, Dr. O’Connor seems to be the one behaving unfairly, not Minister Donnelly.

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