An incisive observation from Robert Burke on the twitter machine, here:
Simon Harris on Thursday 19th March. Less than a week later and Irish authorities have changed their approach. We must be to only country in the West, with a press corps who are reluctant to hold politicians to account. Small country. pic.twitter.com/hPFDX2WaHk
— Robert Burke (@robertburke84) March 25, 2020
He’s both right that the Irish Government has done a complete one hundred and eighty degree u-turn on testing in the space of seven days, and that the rest of the media seems unwilling to question it. More on the latter point in a moment, but first, why the u-turn?
To be fair to Harris, there are a couple of potential explanations.
The first is that he’s simply acting as the mouthpiece of the Government’s medical and scientific advisors, and being sent out as the salesman for whatever the policy is on a given day. That’s not a criticism, by the way – it’s the sensible thing for him, or any Minister, to do in this situation. Harris isn’t an epidemiologist or a viral specialist. Outside of politics, his qualifications are pretty thin. The smart thing for him to do is just to use his skills – which lie in presentation – to articulate the message of the experts, who may know what they’re talking about but lack the skills to communicate it.
But that doesn’t explain the policy reason for the u-turn. Here’s what Harris’s Coronavirus Supremo Tony Holohan says:
“Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, explained that the new measures had been brought in because the volume of people who have come forward for testing recently has been “very large”, with around 20,000 people seeking testing every day for the last 10 days.
“If we were to test at that regime, we would by a considerable distance become the number one country in the world for testing,” he said.
“What that says for us is that a lot of the health seeking behaviour in requests for testing are people who are not appropriate for testing, and we needed to think about focusing our case definition to identify people with a higher probability of having this particular infection.”
This actually chimes with something we talked about here on Monday, when we reported that upwards of 40,000 people were waiting on tests:
“And of course, the very optimistic take is that every single one of us knows a local hypochondriac who comes down with every disease and illness known to man – there’s reason, in that view of the world, to suspect that about 30,000 of that number are just the people who get tested for everything, just to make sure, while almost secretly hoping that they have it. You know the type.”
That was actually intended as a joke, but the more you think about it, the more plausible it might be. When Harris announced that he would “test, test, test” it’s quite likely that every hypochondriac in the country who coughed once was straight onto their GP looking for a test – and that the resultant surge is overwhelming the system. Telling people that they must have at least two symptoms might just be a polite way of telling those of a nervous disposition about their health to stop worrying that they have the virus every time they clear their throats.
The other explanation, of course, is that the tests themselves might be hard to come by. Coronavirus tests are probably the world’s single most in-demand medical product at the moment, along with facemasks and protective equipment for medics. You’ve got every country in the world trying to buy them, and limited production capacity. Though, in an ideal world, you might like to test everybody, that might not be practically possible.
And then there’s the third consideration, which is human resources. Even if you had all the tests you needed, and didn’t have to prioritise testing for some people at all, there’s still a limit to the number of tests you can process. We only have so many people qualified to carry out the tests (you probably don’t want an unqualified person ramming something up your nose) and only so much laboratory capacity to process the results.
All of these things strike me as pretty reasonable reasons for restricting the amount of testing, and it’s hard to blame the Government in these circumstances. But it would be helpful if the Government itself would explain these things, and that’s where the earlier point about media compliance comes in.
Criticism, such as pointing out that Harris has done a u-turn, is not necessarily hostile, or ill-intended. A media that refuses to criticise is a media that limits the amount of explaining that the Government has to do, and in this kind of once-in-a-century situation, there is no limit to the amount of explaining that the Government should be doing. Public confidence is absolutely vital. If people start panicking about the lack of tests, and whatsapp stories start circulating about how someone’s mother is basically dying and can’t get a test, then public confidence in the authorities will break down.
And the media can’t kid itself that just because it doesn’t criticise the Government in these situations that the public don’t notice – they do.
In six days, the Minister for Health has gone from “test everyone” to “only test the obviously sick”. That’s a major policy shift, and while it seems that there are probably good reasons behind it, they should be forced to explain their reasoning.
It’s still a democracy, after all.