The Tánaiste’s remarkably strident attack on NPHET on Prime Time last night has raised eyebrows right across the political spectrum this morning, and Fianna Fáil backbencher Eamon O’Cuiv has become the first politician to criticise it:
Completely appropriate for Government not to follow NPHET’s advice citing broader social and economic concerns. Not appropriate for certain members of Government to trash NPHET and the CMO in doing so.
— Éamon Ó Cuív (@eamonocuiv) October 6, 2020
For those of you who missed it, here’s what Varadkar had to say:
'None of those people would have faced being on #PUP, none of them have to tell someone they are losing their job, none of them will have to shutter a business for the last time' – Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on #NPHET #cblive pic.twitter.com/ZAw7sDxGLo
— Claire Byrne Live (@ClaireByrneLive) October 5, 2020
“They don’t advise the public”, answered Varadkar, when asked if he had full confidence in NPHET. If that’s the case, why have they been holding multiple press conferences each week for the past six months? Who were they advising, then, if not the public?
Varadkar’s core point is correct, of course, and one that’s been repeatedly made on this website and elsewhere: Nobody elected NPHET, and NPHET won’t lose their jobs either as a result of the pandemic, or at the next election. The buck stops with Varadkar and his colleagues.
But it’s a bit late for that now, isn’t it? Faced with the question of “who do you trust”, and offered a choice between Tony Holohan and the politicians, the public are not, to put it mildly, certain to pick the politicians. In fact, if recent referenda are anything to go by, politicians and lay people do not do well in public debates with medics.
The question which must now be asked is this: What is the Government’s alternative strategy for suppressing the virus, and limiting its spread? They’ve just rejected the advice of their own scientists, so what’s the alternative?
Has Ireland, for example, just embraced, with little or no public debate, a herd immunity approach? Or does the Government believe that the scientific projections are wrong, and that lesser restrictions will have the same retardant impact on the spread of covid as the aggressive proposal made by NPHET?
The opposition, naturally enough, are hedging their bets. Here’s Sinn Fein’s David Cullinane, bemoaning the new restrictions, while also trying to have it both ways and leave the door open to bemoaning that the new restrictions do not go far enough:
Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said the Government would have to explain its reasoning for its decision in the face of rising numbers.
He said there was nevertheless increased restrictions outside Dublin and Donegal which would bring more hardship on families.
“The Government needs to restore the payments they cut, restore the protections for renters, give workers and families the breaks and supports they need.
That’s in keeping with the Sinn Fein policy on everything: More resources. Whether we can actually spend the virus into oblivion is another question.
But even with a feckless opposition, it’s remarkably difficult to discern a Government strategy on the virus, at this point, beyond “hope for the best”.
They have rejected the scientific advice, to a point. They have criticised the scientists who offered it. But the alternative seems to be to pootle along at a lower level of restriction and hope that the thing doesn’t get too bad.