The Editors: At its meeting today, NPHET should disband

Yesterday, the Government of the United Kingdom announced that all Covid 19 restrictions – including mandatory masks, mandatory vaccine passports, and social distancing – will end in the coming days and weeks. From today, students in English schools will no longer be required to wear facemasks.

In Ireland, the widespread expectation is that nothing like this will happen. All week, the media has been briefed that the National Public Health Emergency team will recommend “significant” easing of restrictions. Pubs and restaurants will have their opening hours extended, though still, it is understood, not restored to their pre-pandemic norm.

It is worth considering NPHET’s name. The National Public Health Emergency Team. The most important word in that name is the fourth: The organisation exists, and was constituted, to deal with an emergency. By any reasonable standard, that emergency has now passed.

This is not an argument. It is a simple statement of fact. There is not one iota of publicly available data which supports the notion that Ireland remains in an emergency situation. Our hospitals, while experiencing in January a moderate rise in Covid patients, did not come close to being under threat of collapse. As cases hit record levels, ICU numbers remained flat, or fell.

The continued public prominence of NPHET alone conveys to the public a misleading picture of the situation in the country. Today, for example, we are on tenterhooks awaiting word from a crisis committee, in the absence of any kind of meaningful crisis at all.

It is important to say that not everything NPHET did was bad. In the early days of the pandemic, faced with an unknown threat, and – it should be noted – in the absence of an elected Government as coalition negotiations dragged on endlessly, Dr. Holohan and his team established themselves as a calming and reassuring voice for the country. The public trusted them, and took their advice. So great has that trust been that, in truth, it has enabled NPHET to long outstay what its welcome should have been.

For some time, and in many ways, NPHET have transformed this country into a relative outlier on Covid policy. Last summer, for example, while the rest of Europe operated largely as normal, Ireland continued to persist with exceedingly cautious restrictions on indoor dining. Repeatedly, NPHET has recommended policies with what might be generously described as having only a distant link to science: the €9 meal rule, for example. They have persisted with a policy of vaccine passports long after the facts established that the vaccine does not efficiently prevent covid transmission.

It is also true that it has, at times, felt that NPHET has come to enjoy the power and influence that it has accumulated. This is not hard to understand: It is a body, after all, made up of human beings. In the past two years, Dr. Holohan has been showered in praise, and awards, and the freedom of cities. When he speaks, people listen. It requires great strength of character to accept a return to relative obscurity.

But relative obscurity should be the default setting for the Government’s medical advisors. We need to know that they are there in a crisis, but we also need to have the confidence to know that a crisis will pass.

One of the great challenges, in the coming year, will be to convince a wary public that it is safe to go back to living a normal life. That is particularly true of the older people in our community, and those who have been taught to think of themselves as vulnerable. For many of them, NPHET, not Government, is where they look for guidance.

If the Government are the ones to disband NPHET, then some of these people will mistrust the decision. They will believe it to be political, not scientific. There are those who will claim that Dr. Tony was silenced.

It is, therefore, the right and just thing for NPHET to do to disband itself. Or, at least, to recommend its own disbandment, or standing down, or whatever words it wishes to use.

If Dr. Holohan and his team care about the health of our nation, then that is what they will do, if not today, then some day soon.

When you are the most trusted person in Ireland on the matter of the pandemic, you are also the only one who can definitively say that the pandemic is over. A refusal to do so, very soon, will confirm that all of the worst assumptions about NPHET from its critics – including us – were very well founded indeed.

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