While there were differing views on the necessity and proportionality of the NPHET recommendation to move the country to Level 5, there was very little debate around the manner in which that decision made its way into the public domain.
Sent out on a fairly miserable Sunday evening, weather wise at least, it landed with genuine force and shock among the big and little platoons of an already demoralised and weary country.
Now that the government has made the decision to ignore the recommendation however, and go with nationwide Level 3 restrictions, something approaching a version of sanity has at last prevailed, even if real questions and difficulties remain.
There is in fact a growing sense that the bright kids over at NPHET might have been wiser to take account of the kind of advice once offered by the poet Ogden Nash in his poem, Reflections on a Wicked World: “Here’s a good rule of thumb. Too clever is dumb.”
Because that is precisely what seems to have happened here. According to reporting by Christina Finn, the HSE was not even consulted by NPHET “prior to the Level 5 recommendation as to what their view was on operational capacity.”
Finn also reports that the overall view now is that NPHET “tried to bounce the government into a circuit breaker without consultation.”
If this is true, then it speaks to the kind of arrogance and over-reach that might once have been reserved for graduates of the Alan ‘Power Is A Drug’ Kelly School of Governance.
On a more serious note, what it also gives particular force to is a suggestion made last week by Michael McNamara TD, who is also the Chair of the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee.
At the Committee meeting on September 30th, Deputy McNamara asked Dr Ronan Glynn the following question:
“We all accept that Covid-19 is going to be with us for some time, as is NPHET, by extension. Given that, and the necessity for transparency that we have just discussed, would Dr. Glynn consider webcasting NPHET meetings? I have never tuned in but I understand that the equivalent body in New Zealand webcasts its meetings in the interests of transparency and so everybody knows what is going on.”
The reaction from Dr Glynn can probably be best described as approaching that of a conservative Cardinal who had just been asked to sneakily live stream a papal conclave.
Indeed, the good Dr Glynn took great umbrage at the suggestion that there could even be a hint of NPHET being anything less than totally transparent at all times:
“I would argue that NPHET makes some difficult recommendations at points in time. We publish all letters within 24 to 36 hours, often within four or five hours, of a Government decision. All of the data upon which we base our decisions is published. All minutes of our meetings are published. We hold press conferences twice a week and come before the committee when asked to do so.”
At the time that appeared to be a reasonable and strong reply.
But in light of what has just happened around the level 5 fiasco and the suggestion that NPHET tried to manoeuvre government to do its bidding, and not just suggest that it do its bidding, then perhaps it is time we reconsider Deputy McNamara’s question and demand that NPHET live stream its meetings.
This already happens for the Dáil and Seanad and almost all Oireachtas Committees.
NPHET by any reasonable account have become a de facto government within a government. Its decisions have profound consequences for every strata of society.
What could be the harm then in demanding that they make those decisions in the full light of day?
Something to consider at least.