Cianan Brennan: Government's Covid-19 approach full of inconsistencies and incompetence

They said we were flattening the curve. How on earth were things let get so out of control in the space of three short months?
Cianan Brennan: Government's Covid-19 approach full of inconsistencies and incompetence

They say that the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

That being the case, the announcement of a second lockdown for the 26 counties on Monday night has seen me dig so hard into an anger bunker that I’m not sure I’ll really have any time for the other four stages.

Where to start. Maybe with the inconsistencies, the endless, tedious inconsistencies.

You can meet a loved one outside, but not in your home. You can’t leave your county, but you can fly in and out of the country. 

Schoolchildren can associate with hundreds of other young people on a daily basis, but not in their house. Gyms and hairdressers, generally among the most hygienic of establishments in Covid times, are to shut, but elite, amateur (ie, these people have other jobs and workplaces) intercounty sport is to continue. 

You can train with 14 others, but not play golf. The All-Ireland championships are needed to buoy the nation’s spirits, but the arts, which interest plenty of people who couldn’t give a fig about sport, have been shut down.

When it comes down to it, there are a lot of things our months-old Government has proven itself to be terrible at, but its crown jewel of incompetence is in its messaging.

I’m old enough to remember the end of July when then acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn told the press that schools were absolutely on track for reopening in September.

In late June, a week before the change of Government, then taoiseach Leo Varadkar accelerated the reopening of the country because the virus’s curve had been effectively flattened.

How on earth were things let get so out of control in the space of three short months — a time which the Government seemed determined to use to embarrass itself to a cringeworthy extent on a daily basis? 

The WHO says that lockdowns are not a solution — they’re a last resort. For Ireland, they appear to be the only resort.

It all started with the announcement of the ‘roadmap for living with Covid’, which was promptly abandoned 10 seconds later. We were supposed to have five levels, instead, we got level 2.5, level three-plus, level four squared, and secret level eight (whereupon the whole country goes to live under the sea). 

The Government fell foul of the bad student's curse — don’t set yourself a work plan you have no intention of sticking to.

Two weeks ago, Mr Varadkar rammed a knife into chief medical officer Tony Holohan’s back in a manner Brutus would take his hat off to. Nphet’s call for a four-week level five lockdown at the time “had not been thought through”, he said. It wouldn’t be happening again.

Some coalition cheerleaders suggested that this macho posturing was necessary because now it would be easier for the Government to reject Nphet again next time around. That went well.

A fortnight later, when we should have been halfway through the misery of level five we’re instead told we need six weeks of restrictions to flatten the curve once more. That’s a U-turn Vin Diesel would be proud of.

Level three hasn’t worked, says former minister for health Simon Harris, despite the fact it had been in place across the country for a matter of days.

Incumbent health chief Stephen Donnelly — he of the self-aggrandising ‘look at all I’ve achieved’ video during a global pandemic — says the new move, so urgent they’re waiting two days to do it, is a “preemptive” one. Right so.

The new measures were announced without anyone bothering to note that food shopping can be done surplus to the five-kilometre travel restriction. Asked about it, the three coalition leaders 'ummed and aahed' and stared at each other and shuffled their feet and then acknowledged such travel will indeed be legitimate.

Add to all this uselessness, the endless, never-ending leaking. Don’t get me wrong, leaking is a necessary part of the political process — used to fly kites or get ahead of a narrative, or maybe just to provide a little titillation. 

But when the relentless nature of restriction-leaks is playing Russian roulette with the mental health of an entire nation though, it all starts to feel a bit unseemly.

Tuesday morning saw the first climbdown, with the numbers of people allowed to attend funerals bumped from six to 25 in line with weddings. Expect more.

This is not to say that Nphet has exactly been covering itself in glory. We got through the first lockdown via an enormous public effort of solidarity. 

Meanwhile, the public health experts got the nursing homes situation hideously wrong (one of the main reasons the deaths are so low at present is due to the comparison with April and May when almost everyone who died was aged over 80). 

We were told for months that masks weren't needed, then they were mandatory.
We were told for months that masks weren't needed, then they were mandatory.

They said no to masks for months, then mandated their use. Who can blame people for being sceptical?

They got direct provision wrong, they got the meat factories wrong. The airports have never shut.

And boy howdy, do they love them some harsh restrictions. 

“Is there anything to be said for another lockdown?” said the CMO in his best attempt at becoming a Fr Ted meme.

First, they recommended no movement from level three. Three days later they wanted level five. Four days after that they wanted no movement. A week later and we’re back to level five again.

Here’s a simple question: what is the strategy? Is it to survive the flu season without the hospitals being overwhelmed? Fine, that’s laudable. 

But what happens after? What’s the point of getting to Christmas with a low level of cases so we can all party ourselves silly and head into dry January with yet another lockdown for company?

When does lockdown and nothing else stop being the sole approach?

Micheál Martin said that herd immunity isn’t an option. Why isn’t it? Why isn’t crushing the virus via an all-island approach an option? Why can’t the airports be closed? Are we capable of any original thinking on this? 

Some countries around the world — and many of them admittedly have the advantage of their administrations being authoritarian in nature — have done quite well with the virus. What’s to stop us from imitating them?

There is only so long you can go on like this. Make no mistake, this belated lockdown isn’t going to be the same as the last one. You can forget about cocooning for starters. The Government certainly seems to have done so.

Why would people who have so clearly been ignoring public health advice for months suddenly decide that this most half-assed of lockdowns is something they can get on board with? 

Shutting down their local barber isn’t going to make much difference. It just means they’ll have slightly longer hair.

We’re at a very dangerous stage of our history. 

You can only destabilise society and ruin your economy for so long before undesirable forces start to take a firm hold. It’s time for serious governance and a firm, long-term strategy. You’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

This lockdown is so that we can all have a normal Christmas. I don’t know about you, but I’d forego Christmas if I felt the Government had any sort of sustainable plan to get us out of this mess.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up