Aoife Moore: Holohan and Reid say much, but reveal little

Aoife Moore: Holohan and Reid say much, but reveal little

On a day where our public officials were supposed to shed light on the inner workings of our pandemic response, many could attest to their brain socially distancing from their body while watching it. 

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, Secretary General Jim Breslin, and HSE chief executive, Paul Reid, appeared before the Oireachtas special committee on Covid-19 and deftly spoke at length for four hours, without saying very much at all. 

The blame can not be left totally at the feet of the officials however, as TDs maintained the common committee framework of asking up to five questions in one long statement. It's inexplicably par for the course in these committees, which leaves huge space for the official in question to wax lyrical, repeat statements, and/or completely ignore some of the questions they've been asked, whether deliberately or otherwise. 

Most notably when Mr Reid was pressed by Fianna Fáil's Mary Butler on whether patients who were transferred from acute hospitals to nursing homes were tested for Covid-19 beforehand, the question was simply not answered. When Dr Holohan was asked how many people were in NPHET, and how much the group had grown as the pandemic grew, he replied: "At the beginning there were 10 or 12, it grows in terms of people and expertise according to needs, and it has expanded." Definitive. 

When Roisin Shortall asked about risk assessments for reopening different sectors like schools, Dr Holohan said: "There are a range of different expertises at NPHET for risk assessments." When Ms Shortall pushed to have these published, the Dáil heard these assessments will be done by "the relevant sectors", not NPHET. 

And so on it went. There was plenty of jargon, much "tic-tacing" between departments, "working through the costings", some "touching base" with agencies, and a mention of a "Team Ireland" approach. Minutes had not been published, due to administration constraints, but would be eventually. Statistics were not to hand, but would be posted to the TDs later. Their inability, purposefully or otherwise, to answer in detail may have worked in their favour for the most part, due to the conflicting guidance Mr Reid and Dr Holohan went on to give when asked direct questions. 

Midway through the morning it emerged that the Data Protection Commissioner had received complaints that employers had received employees' test results. Dr Holohan was definitive, it was a "breach of confidentiality" and "it should not be happening". Not an hour later, Mr Reid said although it was not ideal, it was at the discretion and judgement of public health officials to do so, without any further description of a situation in which an employer would need to know whether their employee had contracted a deadly illness before the worker themselves.

In a time of pandemic, Ireland has rightfully looked up to and trusted our public health officials, and we should be grateful for their efforts, but in this time where the public is craving transparency, their appearance fell flat, and it didn't go unnoticed by those asking the questions.

More than one TD on the committee remarked after the session that: "Tony and Paul should've been politicians - they answer the questions they wish they'd been asked."

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