The burdens of high office are great indeed.
Yesterday, as the UK media were salivating over a hard-hitting report in the Sunday Times into mistakes made by Boris Johnson’s Government, Ireland’s flagship Sunday Newspaper was publishing this interview with Simon Harris. Behold, the standard of questioning Irish politicians can expect to face, these days:
Two months ago, Simon Harris was one of the most unpopular health ministers in living memory. Now children write to him telling him they miss school, while his growing Instagram following swoons over his every word in daily video updates on the Government’s response to an unprecedented pandemic.
As hundreds are dying from what he calls a “deadly, disgusting virus”, the Health Minister has never been more popular. Asked if he is uncomfortable with this, he told the Sunday Independent: “I’m probably engaged in, jeez I certainly hope, the biggest challenge of my life and probably the lives of everyone in this country, and I just want to do it as best I can.”
Even a North Korean journalist, questioning the dear leader, could probably manage something a little more probing than “your worshipfulness, does the love of the Korean people weigh heavily upon thine sculpted shoulders?”. But not here.
Anyway, here’s the man himself this morning, worrying out loud that the public are starting to relax a little bit too much for comfort:
A little worried that some complacency is setting in. We have made progress but we’re not yet where we need to be. We need to see a fall in new cases. Encouraging signs. But please let’s not slip up now. #StayHome. It’ll be worth it! Retweet so we all get a reminder #Covid19
— Simon Harris TD (@SimonHarrisTD) April 19, 2020
Gee, why might people be “starting to relax”? Might it have something to do with stuff like this?
Teachers are warning that they must be consulted before any decision is made on reopening schools.
It comes after the Health Minister Simon Harris said he would like to see schools opening for one day a week when officials begin to relax COVID-19 restrictions.
He’s out there almost every day telling people how the worst is over and how we’re nearly ready to get those hated children out of the house and back into schools so momma can have some peace, and then he’s wondering why people are starting to relax? Come on.
There’s no doubt at all that the lockdown is weighing heavily on some people, none at all, but the simple fact remains that even with the very restrictive measures we currently have in place having been there for over a month, almost forty people died yesterday, and there were hundreds of new cases. That’s with the lockdown. What do those numbers look like when you lift it?
Remember, there’s no “partial” lifting of the lockdown. That’s complete nonsense, and everybody should know it. The moment you lift it, even a little bit, you might as well fly giant signs past people’s houses saying “relax, lads, the worst is over”. With weather like we’re about to have this week, you can be sure that ten thousand people will decide, all at once, that it’s a grand day for a trip to the beach, and sure isn’t the worst over anyway? It’ll do no harm.
Harris going out there, every day, on solo runs, making grand pronouncements, is the opposite of helpful. In fairness to the Taoiseach, Mr. Varadkar’s messaging has been pretty consistent since the beginning of the crisis. The Government has obviously made significant mistakes, but the broad strategy has been well, and calmly articulated. You don’t have Varadkar on twitter every day, saying one moment that things are going well and the next that people can’t think things are going too well. But the Health Minister is so addicted to the spotlight that it’s as if he needs to find a new hot take to tweet out every single day.
Anyway, back to the interview. There’s some astonishing things in there. Like, refusing to accept any blame himself, but having this to say about Tony Holohan:
Do you think he got anything wrong?
SH: Tony Holohan is an incredible person but nobody’s absolutely perfect and I’m sure when we look back, he will look back on things, and I will look back on things, but we’re making these decisions in real time.
And then there’s this clanger:
Look at what has been delivered for a virus that we didn’t know about four months ago, no one knew of its existence. We had a general election on February 8. I don’t ever remember being asked a question about a ventilator, or test because you didn’t know about the virus and neither did I.
He didn’t know about the virus on February 8th?
Bullshit, says journalist Ken Foxe:
The reason I find this so strange is that the minister had been extensively briefed on coronavirus in the weeks leading up to February 8. Here's one relating to a memo for the information of government from Jan 29: pic.twitter.com/eAjytYQ4MV
— Ken Foxe (@kenfoxe) April 19, 2020
In fairness to Mr. Harris, he may simply have been saying that he did not know how deadly the virus was, or that a pandemic was about to hit – very few people did. But the phrasing is curious, and besides, the whole point of Government is to prepare for, and think about, things the rest of us aren’t. The virus was a well known phenomenon in early February. It had already arrived in Europe, and footage of people in Hazmat suits from the far east had been on our televisions from December.
As it is, Ireland has the tenth worst death rate of any normal-sized country on the planet, a crisis in nursing homes, forty deaths a day, and is facing into an economic recession that will make the last one look like the good ol’ days. And Simon Harris is answering questions about the burdens of being so popular.