Cianan Brennan: HSE's 'good cop, bad cop’ approach seems to work

Cianan Brennan: HSE's 'good cop, bad cop’ approach seems to work
The HSE's information leaflet on Coronavirus

It is still very early days in the Covid-19 outbreak from an Irish perspective, though it may not feel like it.

A week at home with our loved ones, with no prospect of social release — at least not in the manner that we are used to — has no doubt frayed nerves from coast to coast.

In these situations, as a generally compliant people, we depend on our authority figures to keep us up to speed on how the war against this unseen enemy is progressing.

It’s one of the reasons why the St Patrick’s Day address to the nation by the Taoiseach was such a good idea. Mr Varadkar is not everyone’s cup of tea — for some the speech was an exercise in creative PR and nothing more.

However, for many others, particularly the less politically inclined, it was a godsend — a firm underlining that we really are all in this together.

That brings us to our health chiefs — they being the ones to design and advise on the best manner with which to deal with the virus.

There are two such figureheads living in our collective consciousness at present: Paul Reid, HSE chief executive; and Tony Holohan, chief medical officer at the Department of Health and head of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

On Sunday, the two men appeared separately on the nation’s airwaves, to discuss the crisis, but with slightly different approaches.

Above: Paul Reid; Below: Tony Holohan
Above: Paul Reid; Below: Tony Holohan

In outlining the HSE’s enormous procurement spend and recruitment drive, and its testing initiatives, Mr Reid appeared very much to be on a war footing.

Asked whether any comfort could be taken from the fact the numbers of new confirmed Covid-19 cases announced from Thursday though to Saturday appeared to have stagnated, he replied quite firmly: “Absolutely not. We are only at the beginning.”

Dr Holohan meanwhile told RTE Radio’s This Week that there are “encouraging signs” being seen on the medical frontlines.

“The majority of contacts now that are identified for the cases that are followed up are household contacts. And that tells us that people here and now are following the guidance, they’re not out and about,” he said.

“That is giving us good encouragement that we might see an impact over the next one to two weeks.”

To be fair, Mr Reid, formerly chief executive of Fingal County Council with a reputation for being as straight down the line as they come, has a different role to play compared with Dr Holohan, who has been the country’s chief health official since 2008.

The former is basically running an enormous administrative operation, probably the largest such medical project in the State’s history. It is predicated on the advice of NPHET, and requires full buy-in from the public.

Dr Holohan’s job is to orchestrate the fight against Covid-19, and to collate and analyse the data returned, and say when (and if) the next level of heightened measures are to be introduced.

But do their statements add up to mixed messaging from those in the know? Or are they both legitimate?

It could be argued that Irish people are uniquely well-disposed to the carrot-and-stick approach.

We need to be terrified into action. But we also need to be praised and told that we’re doing well in order to redouble our efforts.

Perhaps there is no great strategy at play in this good cop-bad cop scenario.

But it shows that the two men are human.

And Irish people are at our best when we can empathise.

    Useful information
  • The HSE have developed an information pack on how to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. Read it here
  • Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus who has been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days should isolate themselves from other people - this means going into a different, well-ventilated room alone, with a phone; phone their GP, or emergency department - if this is not possible, phone 112 or 999 and in a medical emergency (if you have severe symptoms) phone 112 or 999

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