It was a recommendation that took many by surprise. Ronan Glynn, the deputy chief medical officer and a key member of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), released a video on social media last Friday in which he urged people not to return to offices but to work remotely instead.
ommenting on the increased numbers of people contracting Covid-19 and the rise in both hospitalisations and intensive care admissions, he called on people to “work from home, where possible, over this autumn and winter”.
His words drew a reaction from Isme — the small to medium business group — with chief executive Neil McDonnell insisting that calls to work from home would cause “confusion”, especially when such a high proportion of the population has been fully vaccinated. Where was the vaccine dividend, he wondered.
With Tánaiste Leo Varadkar speaking regularly in previous months about vaccinated workers returning to offices from the end of October, Dr Glynn’s comments seemed to be a direct contradiction of his supposed political masters. Who should the public listen to: the Government or Nphet?
Richard Guiney was among those taken aback by the intervention. The chief executive of Dublin Town — an association that represents retailers and business owners — had believed that fully vaccinated people would be returning to the workplace after a hiatus of as much as 20 months.
“The footfall number in the city centre is rising, but it’s still considerably lower than it was this time two years ago. Last week, it was 77.5pc of what it would have been in 2019,” he says.
“Having people back at offices would really help to revitalise the city, so it was very disheartening to hear him [Glynn] advising people to stay at home. Members of the Government had been saying something very different and the public must be wondering who to believe. For a long time, there have been significant communication problems when it comes to managing this pandemic and when it’s not clear and concise, there’s bound to be confusion.”
Nphet, many would argue, has to take its share for the sometimes haphazard communications about Covid since March last year, when restrictions were first imposed.
The group came into being on January 27 last year, a full month before the first case of the coronavirus was detected in this country. Its establishment attracted practically no news coverage — the focus in the media was almost entirely on the general election taking place on February 8. Covid news was still largely confined to the margins.
But as February wore on and the virus started to take hold in Italy and other countries, Ireland braced for its arrival. By March 12, when then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced the first lockdown, Nphet’s officials — especially chief medical officer Tony Holohan — were regular fixtures on the nightly news.
Dr Holohan, who had been seen as a divisive figure as a result of his handling of the cervical smear controversy, became so synonymous with Ireland’s fight against the virus that he was awarded an honorary Freedom of the City of Dublin. He was depicted as Superman in a mural in Dublin’s south inner-city.
When he had to take leave to care for his terminally ill wife, Emer Feely, who died earlier this year, there was widespread sympathy.
But with reopening happening later than most other countries, much of the public’s frustration was aimed at Nphet officials. It was argued that they were out of touch and that their focus on the coronavirus was at the detriment of other medical emergencies. Hospital waiting lists, already bad, went through the roof.
And, since the start, there have been complaints that its composition is too male. Persistent issues such as the refusal to allow partners to attend most hospital appointments with pregnant women have been laid at the group’s door.
Of the 38 current members of Nphet, 18 are women but the five members that are in the public eye the most — Holohan, Glynn, Philip Nolan, Colm Henry and Cillian de Gascun — are men. Wednesday’s Nphet press conference — their first briefing since August — featured both Holohan and Nolan.
Public relations expert Johnny Fallon, of Carr Communications, says Nphet was seen as a welcome part of Ireland’s fight against the virus in the early stages of the pandemic. It also suited the Government to let Nphet take centre stage.
“Politicians are always mistrusted at the best of times and in an emergency, they will look to experts,” he says. “Having Nphet has been a real boon for the Government at times because it’s allowed them to say, ‘Look, you don’t have to trust us — we’re not the experts here, but we are taking the advice of the experts on it.’
“The problem is that when something goes on for a long period of time, opinions change and other things become important.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, all anybody in Ireland cared about were the health impacts of Covid — the threats of death and serious illness — and Nphet was the perfect voice to tell people that, ‘If this is the priority, then the priority is to listen to the advice from us’.”
Eighteen months on, he says, the populace is divided between those who prioritise saving lives and reducing hospitalisations, and the others who believe the economy needs a return to normality and we should be more like other European countries.
“That portion of the population aren’t inclined to listen to Nphet because they see them as being too narrow in their view,” he says.
Fallon has long believed that there has been a disjointed and confusing communications strategy about the pandemic.
“The difficulty for Nphet is that what they’re dealing with is not always an exact science and often they have really struggled at explaining why things work out or don’t work out,” he says. “They are presented as experts, but when things don’t plan out as they say, some people lose a certain amount of trust.”
For concert and music promoter Shane Dunne, who has campaigned tirelessly for his sector since the pandemic began, that trust has been eroded time and again.
When it was announced earlier this month that Ireland was on track to drop restrictions, promoters began booking gigs.
“Events up and down the country were planned throughout the country,” Dunne says. “I myself have four sold out shows this weekend — two Coronas shows in the Spiegeltent, Wexford and Le Boom in Cyprus Avenue [Cork] and Whelan’s [Dublin]. Now, we’re told that they won’t allow standing at gigs — all the shows I’m working on are 100pc standing.”
He was speaking before Thursday’s reports that audiences of up to 1,500 would be allowed at standing venues, but it’s a case that underlines the mixed messages between the Government and Nphet.
Dunne, who is best known in the industry for running the Indiependence music festival in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, says it has been a huge source of frustration for the live entertainment sector that Nphet has seemed to be calling the shots.
“This is my personal view, but in March 2020 it suited the Government to put Nphet out front, to make the hard calls and to be on the ones on the TV saying, ‘You’ve all got to knuckle down, people are going to lose their jobs.’ What that did was create rock-star scientists and doctors who were on TV five nights a week and who were plenty capable of talking to the press themselves. And, sometimes, they undermined Government.
“Then, when the Government tried to look at the bigger picture, and take account of the economy and everything else, Nphet’s recommendations would become public knowledge — so the public would know that if the Government went a different way, they would have gone against Nphet.”
There have been several sticky points in the relationship between senior members of the Government and Nphet, most notoriously last October, when Leo Varadkar spoke out on RTÉ.
The Tánaiste said he opposed Nphet’s recommendation, which came to light on the previous Sunday evening, that the country be moved to Level 5 restrictions — the most severe available. He argued that the suggestion had “not been thought through” and insisting there had “not been prior consultation” before the recommendation was leaked.
“None of those people,” Varadkar said of Nphet members, “would have faced being on PUP, none of them have to tell someone they are losing their job, none of them will have to shutter a business for the last time”.
Yet it was not long before tougher restrictions were introduced.
There was said to be considerable embarrassment in the Government when Holohan tweeted his shock at seeing streets packed with young people in May. After a barrage of public health messaging that socialising outdoors is far safer than inside, his tweet attracted a considerable social media backlash.
Michael McNamara, the Independent TD for Co Clare, has been a trenchant critic of how the pandemic has been handled. He believes Nphet has long moved from being an advisory body to one forcing decisions on the Government.
“I’m not aware of what advice the Government is receiving in any other area, such as economists and tax consultants etc, in advance of the Budget, but nobody knows what advice that was,” he says.
“Those civil servants weren’t out saying, ‘Well, we’re going to tell the Government this, that and the other’. They’re not trying to force the Government to effectively do what they want them to do, so I don’t see why Nphet should be any different at this stage.”
McNamara noted Glynn’s plea for employees to continue working from home.
“He doesn’t have to worry about the fact that existing broadband for those in the country is still, by and large, really bad. Ronan Glynn also doesn’t have to worry about the fact that the National Broadband Plan is hopelessly behind schedule so whether or not people can get work done at home isn’t of concern to him — nor should it be. But that advice would have been better delivered to the Government than to the public.
“Too often, Nphet haven’t just been giving advice, but they’ve been demanding that the Government bring in regulations to force that.”
Marc MacSharry, the Sligo TD who resigned from Fianna Fáil last month, has also been persistently critical of Nphet.
“As I’ve been saying from the very beginning, our approach lacks the strategic nature of seeking to live with Covid. It’s all been about vaccinations and lockdowns — nothing much has changed,” he says. “We should be asking, since the pandemic started, how many additional acute beds have been made available? How many additional ICU beds? How many additional nurses and doctors have been recruited?”
MacSharry has been frustrated by Nphet’s unwillingness to encourage or endorse antigen testing.
“We’re two years into this and people are begging for antigen tests. They’ve been used effectively in other countries and it’s a resource that we could be using.”
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said this week that he is a “strong believer” in the tests. People who are fully vaccinated and have no symptoms but are found to be close contacts of someone with Covid-19 are expected to be sent a pack of the tests by the HSE from the end of this week.
The tests have been widely available for free to the public in the UK for months.
MacSharry says that while he does not want Nphet to disband this month — as had been reported by this newspaper at the end of August, when daily Covid infections numbers were much lower — he is urging them to stay out of the public conversation.
“The Taoiseach, many months ago, described me as someone who wanted them to ‘disappear’. I never wanted them to disappear — I wanted them to do their job,” he says.
“There are umpteen financial advisers in the National Treasury Management Agency and various other public bodies that we depend on, but they don’t have Twitter accounts and nor would it be appropriate for them to be tweeting. Nor would it be appropriate for them to be gazumping a minister or the Taoiseach.
“They’re advisory — and in my view, you hand that advice through the door or across a desk and then the Government decides. But, as we’ve seen, parliament has become totally redundant in this country and, in effect, Government has too.”