What is happening?
Up until about five minutes past Monday, it was, it is fair to say, the considered position of all good and reasonable and respectable people that Ireland had delivered one of the world’s greatest covid-19 responses. A few naysayers, of course, disputed this, but they were mostly confined to fringe websites and – naturally – the dastardly and ever-present “far right”. Everyone who mattered, or who ever has mattered, in Ireland, would have agreed: We were not perfect, but we broadly got it right.
And then Professor Martin Cormican spoke up. Or, more accurately, his words from last September were reported in public.
We had not, he said, got it mostly right. We had relied too much on fear to keep the population in line. Some restrictions had been excessive, others left in place much too long. Perhaps, he pondered, widespread mask mandates had been largely ineffective. We had, he worried, “excessively restricted personal freedoms”, and worried too much about “short term metrics like cases and deaths”.
It’s ironic, of course, that the same media outlets reporting his comments were often those who, during the pandemic, did a nightly news bulletin from the Department of Health to cover that day’s “numbers”. Perhaps, per Cormican, they got that one wrong too.
And then, it seems to me, the floodgates opened.
Suddenly, yesterday, we had the sight of the new Chief Medical Officer urging older people – many of whom remain in terrified relative isolation – to “go back to the things they love”. Though Covid 19 is still at large in the population, suddenly it is nothing to worry about. The fact, however, that so many older people are still too afraid of going out is a direct result of the climate of fear Prof Cormican mentions.
Then we had the Taoiseach, Mr. Varadkar, promising a “full public enquiry”. In the Irish Times, we were gifted the revelation that some decision makers regarded closing Ireland’s schools for basically a full year as one of the worst public policy decisions ever taken.
At the same time as all this was happening in Ireland, the Daily Telegraph in the UK reported on a cache of text messages sent by the then Minister for Health, Matt Hancock, during the pandemic. Amongst other things, they reveal his constant contacts with major media figures to shape their coverage in favour of the Government’s message, as well as serious flaws in the way people in nursing homes were protected.
Across the two islands, it is “maybe we got lockdown wrong” week.
The forthcoming covid enquiries may, or may not, unearth policy errors that were made during the pandemic, and we may indeed have a round of “let’s not do that again”. It does not matter, because the one thing that is certain is that the enquiries will not target those who are most at fault for any failings: The opposition political parties, and the media.
In a democracy, it is their job to question and challenge and scrutinise. Instead, they simply offered unquestioning endorsement.
It is easy to say that in Ireland, there was no debate over lockdown. But, in fairness to the Government, it was never their job to start one: Their job is to identify a policy, and communicate it to the public, and to defend their reasons for adopting it.
It is the job of the opposition to oppose it. Not, as is often said, “for opposition’s sake”. But because it is only through opposition, and scrutiny, and challenge that flaws in any policy are exposed before it is actually enacted. That is supposed to be the major benefit of democracy over any other form of Government: In Communist Russia, Stalin had no opposition, and those he did have, he shot. As a result, flawed policies were enacted without question.
In a democracy, the whole benefit is supposed to be the existence of questions. That is why, to this day, the United Kingdom’s Labour Party is officially called the “loyal opposition”. Because their opposition of the Government is an act of patriotism in and of itself.
Where was Ireland’s patriotic, loyal opposition? Cheering on the Government, is the answer. In the pandemic, we were precisely as well off, in democratic terms, as Stalin’s Russia. You can count the number of times Irish Ministers were asked about civil liberties, by major opposition figures, on one hand. And you could still do that, even if you had lost both hands in an accident.
Even now, it is left to Government figures to question themselves. Martin Cormican, the man speaking out, was in fact a member of NPHET. In fairness to that body, it is a bit much to have expected them to provide both policy, and opposition to that policy. He is not to be blamed for only speaking out now.
I’ll tell you who is to blame, though: Mary Lou McDonald. Alan Kelly. Ivana Bacik. The Social Democrats. The News Editors at RTE and the Irish Times and the Irish Independent.
NPHET and the Government did their jobs. We need to have an enquiry because the people above did not do theirs. That’s the biggest lesson we should be learning from the Covid years.