Alison O'Connor: Catch-22 of being in power but with Covid-19 running the show

We’re all living on our Covid nerves right now, but we don’t have the responsibility of taking decisions for an entire population
Alison O'Connor: Catch-22 of being in power but with Covid-19 running the show

Taoiseach Micheál Martin: Primary responsibility with the decisions lies with him and his Cabinet.

What a time to be a politician in Government. One minute you’re throwing money around like it’s confetti, the next you’re taking decisions that will directly affect whether people live or die.

This is what a political week looks like when you are delivering a budget mid-pandemic while Covid-19 levels spiral. 

All the while you must be wondering was it the correct decision not to follow the advice of your main public health advisers. 

Talk about having to hold your nerve. It’s the catch-22 of being in Government, but feeling as if it is Covid-19 that is in power.

It is highly unlikely that anyone sitting around the Cabinet table at the moment, whether Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, or the Green Party, imagined when they entered politics that this is where things might end up. It is an incredibly tough position to find yourself in.

We’re all living on our Covid nerves right now, but we don’t have the responsibility of taking decisions for an entire population. It is impossible to predict where anything will land, one day from the next. 

You deliver a bonanza budget on a Tuesday and by Thursday it is all but forgotten because rapid decisions had to be taken to introduce level four restrictions for Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal.

This followed the North, with its escalating levels, deciding to close pubs and restaurants for four weeks, with schools shut for a fortnight.

All the time in the background hovers that advice given by Nphet. Would you believe it was less than a fortnight ago that it said the entire country should go to level five? 

In rejecting this, the Government made that very significant break from public health advice on the basis that it had to take into account not just lives but livelihoods.

In the short time since, that move has begun to look riskier by the day — although again, no one can say for certain. 

Taking a decision not to invoke the highest level of restrictions, owing to economic reasons, is a massive one to be placed on the shoulders of those who sit around the Cabinet table. 

The primary responsibility rests with Taoiseach Micheál Martin, and the other members of the Covid subcommittee: Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, and  Public Enterprise and Reform Minister Michael McGrath. However it is ultimately the responsibility of the entire Cabinet.

Sure our health service has been in a perilous state for years. It was a relatively regular occurrence to hear that certain government decisions, the way something was run or the cutting of a particular programme, or overcrowding in A&E, would ultimately result in deaths.

There was also usually considerable evidence to back this up. These stories of tragedies that occurred as a result of the poor running of our health system frequently turned up in the media, or dominated Liveline. But much of that had almost become a white noise where the Irish health service was concerned.

Somehow the decisions taken now are on a far more visceral level. It’s a path strewn with grenades. Our senior politicians listen to the public health experts but then they have the competing voices of business owners, or people who lose their jobs when the levels are increased, or even the medics who advise a different strategy and worry about the other areas of the health service that get shut down.

Then while you’re busy looking after livelihoods, you might suddenly find yourself in a place where the number of lives lost is hitting record numbers. At that point in time it would be virtually impossible to be heard above the din of despair and anger, to try and explain that it seemed like the correct idea at the time.

How do you judge the mood of the public when it could just as easily turn against you? 

The quiet streets of the Liberties area of Dublin City yesterday morning. Picture: Sam Boal /
The quiet streets of the Liberties area of Dublin City yesterday morning. Picture: Sam Boal /

As one senior politician put it this week: “You have the businessman who is railing against the restrictions for understandable reasons but then a close family member of that same person dies of Covid and their attitude changes. No one can describe any of this process as easy.” 

A Cabinet member described it “as a decision unlike any other given that it involves human life, but if you decide on a full lockdown there are also very real consequences including people’s financial situations and other health aspects”.

“You do feel the weight of it… It is a very awkward and difficult place to be to not accept the advice of the experts. You listen to the experts and you put the challenging questions to them to try and understand the rationale. 

It’s not a science, it’s a judgment.

Another minister described it as “pretty solemn” to be in that situation where “incredibly serious decisions” are being taken.

However, the Government feels that, at present, there is a reasonable majority of people supportive of its approach.

“We might yet have to make a decision where we lose that majority. People might not stay with us if we have to take a different decision. The one thing is that the more demanding these decisions, the more they have united the Government together.” 

But how high those stakes. These politicians, used to being in the firing line with the voters if things go wrong, know that public and media sentiment could turn very easily. Even in the first wave, when we were all far more united, there were criticisms of decisions made and how certain things were handled, not least the number of deaths in nursing homes.

Sentiment has become far more febrile. The people who respect the 'lives and livelihoods’ approach now might not remember this was their position if the incidence of Covid shoots through the roof, and there is an accompanying rise in the number of deaths.

Yes, the members of the Cabinet are well paid to do their jobs and have not had to rely on the PUP at any point. The pandemic actually makes their jobs more secure in that it lessens the chances of there being a general election any time soon. 

Right now, though, there couldn’t be enough money in any wage check to pay you for the decisions that are being taken in order to both protect both the lives and livelihoods of citizens. 

It’s only fair we keep that in mind.

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