Alison O'Connor: Government launch living with Covid-19 plan in a shambolic week 

We are deep in cod liver oil politics territory here; nobody wants to swallow anymore of this coronavirus pandemic awfulness, writes Alison O'Connor
Alison O'Connor: Government launch living with Covid-19 plan in a shambolic week 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly at the unveiling of the Government's Plan for Living with Covid-19. Picture: Julien Behal Photography

As this week closes we are close to the worst of all worlds when it comes to fighting a global pandemic. Covid-19 numbers are soaring and patience with the Government has worn dangerously thin.

There is a long and woeful list of things that have gone wrong.

As the week began those that did retain a trust in their political leaders were left unsure exactly what was expected of them, and by the end of it they are scared and frustrated. 

To be entirely fair we are deep in cod liver oil politics territory here. Nobody wants to swallow anymore of this pandemic awfulness. None of it is easy. But it is also an terrible mess.

It appears as if this Government, specifically Taoiseach Micheál Martin, cannot catch a break under any circumstances. 

Some of this is self-inflicted, while the blame for the rest can be spread around between his Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, members of his own party and in recent days a politically opportunistic Sinn Féin.

Playing the Government off against the public is a very dangerous opposition game at this time — acknowledging that, said Government keeps leaving the goal wide open.

Just in case all of that was not enough we have Brexit once again on the boil, and a necessity for the Government to put together, over the next few weeks, the best possible budget in the worst possible circumstances.

Into this mix is the current political dynamic. We have a taoiseach whose political capital is on the floor. Fine Gael is absolutely trouncing Fianna Fáil in the polls. Last Sunday’s Business Post/Red C poll had Fianna Fáil at 10%, Fine Gael at 35% and Sinn Fein at 27%. Under any other circumstances it would seem completely crazy for the party with such an upper hand not to attempt to engineer an election. 

But these are not normal times even if Leo “keep stirring the pot” Varadkar has been playing with political fire and repeatedly trying to undermine his successor. Again to be fair he did not indulge in that behaviour this week — at least not in public.

The good news is that the Government’s newly unveiled plan for dealing with Covid-19 in the medium term is not bad at all; it could serve us very well in the coming months. What a pity it was launched just when the virus numbers are taking off again. That fact makes this week’s apparent sidelining of our public health leaders — and their advice — all the more disturbing.

An Taoiseach Micheál Martin's political capital is on the floor especially following his party's trouncing the Business Post/Red C poll. Picture: Julien Behal Photography
An Taoiseach Micheál Martin's political capital is on the floor especially following his party's trouncing the Business Post/Red C poll. Picture: Julien Behal Photography

Where to begin when it comes to Micheál Martin’s own failings? This column has previously speculated on his very impressive political staying power, as compared to his failure, over a long number of years, to instil abiding loyalty from a significant number of his party colleagues. If hitting your stride is the descriptor of success, the Corkman has achieved the opposite since arriving in Government Buildings; stumbling haplessly from one scenario to the next.

A number of situations, such as his health minister Stephen Donnelly falling ill, on the day the Plan for Living with Covid-19 roadmap was launched — have clearly not been his fault. But you’re clearly in dire trouble, if, a day that was meant to signal a new, more positive direction for the Government ends up with people — politicians and observers — peering out between their fingers in mortified fear of anything else shambolic occurring.

It was an understandable tactic while in opposition to tackle Leo Varadkar for too much spinning and concentration on image. But has this zeal spilled over to the extent where the Taoiseach is not taking any advice that may be offered to him on this subject, and he is left looking like a communications laggard? There is the added aspect to this that if you’re in charge of a situation, and there is constant criticism of your handling of it, you’re bound to feel increasingly defensive.

So having overseen the pulling together of a good Covid-19 plan for the country the Taoiseach then failed to sell it well at the official launch, and subsequently failed to connect in an interview on the Six One News that evening. The best interview given on the plan on Tuesday was by Leo Varadkar on Prime Time. The following morning the rescue/mop up strategy was spearheaded by Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe on Morning Ireland.

The best interview on the Plan for Living with Covid-19 was given by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Picture: Julien Behal Photography
The best interview on the Plan for Living with Covid-19 was given by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Picture: Julien Behal Photography

At the launch of the plan in Dublin Castle earlier on Tuesday the Taoiseach took to the stage with Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly. 

Notable by his absence was acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn. 

This is clearly part of the new strategy to separate the public health experts from the politics. 

This is to be formalised by the establishment of a new group, chaired by Martin Fraser, secretary-general of the Department of the Taoiseach, to assess the advice given by Nphet, ahead of the Government considering it.

If we look back to last week we see that Nphet had just one, rather than the usual two media briefings. 

It took place on Wednesday. Then on Friday Dr Glynn, on behalf of Nphet, sent a letter to the minister for health expressing obvious concern about the rise in virus levels, in Kildare, Limerick and Dublin — especially Dublin.

The letter mentions “grave” concern about the rise in cases. It said the capital is a “substantial reservoir of disease”, that it could transmit widely, that there could be an increase in patients in ICU and in deaths. 

There was mention of a “narrowing window of opportunity” and the need for intense communication with the public.

It was not until six days later on Wednesday morning this week that this letter was made publicly available when it was posted on the Gov.ie website. But last Friday night Dr Glynn took to social media where he posted a video at 7.45pm with a “direct message” to people living and working in Dublin.

Your individual actions really do matter. They all count.

Dr Ronan Glynn, on behalf of Nphet, sent a letter to the minister for health expressing grave concern about the rise in cases of Covid-19. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Dr Ronan Glynn, on behalf of Nphet, sent a letter to the minister for health expressing grave concern about the rise in cases of Covid-19. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

On Wednesday evening, at a very stark Nphet media briefing Dr Glynn said the situation has deteriorated nationally over the past week. “Along with Dublin we have seen particularly concerning trends in Louth, Waterford and Donegal. It is now absolutely essential that people action public health advice and act as if they or those close to them are potentially infectious.”

 Let us remember the words of WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan back in March when he advised governments all over the world who were trying to fight the virus: “Speeds trumps perfection”. 

Nobody argues that any of this Covid-19 stuff is easy. There are very significant economic consequences to be take into account, as well as the health ones. But we’ve had neither speed, nor anything that remotely approaches perfection. 

We can just hope that despite it all everyone manages to pull together once again and we get the numbers back down.

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