The speed of the Omicron variant and the disruption it’s causing contrasts with the slothful reaction of our political leaders.
The last meeting of the Cabinet was on December 22, and there’s a meeting next week. When the hospitals and the cohesion of the workforce are under threat, two weeks is too long for a government to spend scratching its backside.
Before Christmas, Nphet insisted high levels of protection were needed, given the probability of an Omicron surge. One of the measures it advised was that pubs and restaurants should close at 5pm.
For its own status reasons, the Government had to be seen to push back at Nphet. This was the second Christmas revolt the Government had staged against Nphet protection measures. The Christmas 2020 revolt saw the ICUs fill up with Covid victims, with lethal consequences through January and February.
This Christmas, as a modest gift to their supporters, the FF/FG Government succeeded in pushing pub and restaurant closing time back to 8pm.
Politicians like to be remembered for achievements. Donogh O’Malley opened up secondary education for the masses, Sean Lemass began the process of turning the country outwards.
And, between them, Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar managed to get us three hours of extra drinking time at Christmas 2021.
Of course, brute reality reversed that reversal, and 5pm closing was restored in time for New Year’s Eve. Did it matter — three hours this way or that? Yes, it did.
Leaving aside the effect on the infection figures, whining and changing the advice tells the public that health advice by specialists is no more meaningful than the random thoughts of politicians. Untrue and dangerous
Suddenly, Omicron went into top gear. On Christmas Eve, we were told that “infections are increasing at an unprecedented rate”.
On Christmas Day, we celebrated the birth of the Lord. On St Stephen’s Day, every news bulletin let us know the infection rate was clicking ever faster. So transmissible is the variant that one in four young adults was now testing positive.
Through the dodgy days, there was no sign of anyone from the Government reassuring us that the multiplying infections were anything we should seek to do anything about.
Our politicians like to celebrate the birth of Christ for a whole month: mid-December to mid-January. They’re very pious people. And while they’re celebrating the Lord, they’re invisible.
There was one sign that a responsible adult with an official role might be aware of what was going on. On St Stephen’s Day, Dr Tony Holohan said it would help if families didn’t mix to celebrate and if we stayed away from crowded shops.
By Monday, it was clear that “surge” was too mild a word for what was happening. The media diligently kept us informed about the level of “confirmed cases”. It was hard to see the point of this, as by now the official figures seemed merely a vague reflection of the actual cases.
And the rocketing cases would soon rewrite the rules on testing and isolation. That Monday, the HSE told us that 49.7pc of tests were positive — one in two. The disease was “running rife in the community”.
No one prepared us for any of this. Yet there wasn’t a whisper from government level about what seemed to be a disturbing turn.
We have the vaccines this time. And Omicron hasn’t been killing people on the scale of Delta. However, too much is as yet unknown about the variant. Either way, it looks like this time we’ll need fewer body bags.
But very high case numbers create their own problems. As the rise in infections continued, there was already anecdotal evidence of an over-stretched, under-resourced health service pushed to where it can’t provide the basics.
We already knew the GPs were under pressure; now the pharmacists put out an alert. We don’t know how the surge will affect the hospitals, we don’t know the consequences for non-Covid treatments. It will be a while before we know how this will play out in long-term sickness in the health service and beyond.
With Omicron infecting ever greater numbers, workforces have been depleted. We don’t know how mass infections will in the long run disrupt production and transport in the wider economy. If any of this bothered our leaders, they kept it to themselves.
They said bugger all last Tuesday. Next day, the Good Lord rolled a rock away from the face of a cave and out stepped our saviour, Leo ‘Tánaiste’ Varadkar.
He appeared in the Irish Times, giving what the paper termed “an upbeat assessment”. It said he expected the infections would be high for “the next few days”, but he forecast we would “overcome” the Omicron surge “more quickly than earlier waves”.
Mr V had nothing to say about the effect on the hospitals or the workforce. And then the story went a bit peek-a-boo. Up to now, all quotes in the story were sourced — Varadkar and two others. Suddenly, anonymous “health sources” appeared.
“Meanwhile, a number of health sources have expressed surprise at the statement of chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan on St Stephen’s Day, in which he advised people not to socialise with other households and to “shop online where possible”. One source said: “The advice clearly conflicted with government policy, which allows mixing with three other households.”
So, it’s a petty anonymous kick at Tony Holohan.
Journalists will go to jail rather than break a promise of confidentiality to a source. This allows insiders to expose wrong-doing in the public interest while protected by anonymity.
It has, however, become routine for political journalists to grant anonymity to politicians to allow them to bad-mouth party colleagues. So, you can suck up to a leader publicly and betray them anonymously, all protected by the journalist. I’m not sure how this is in the public interest.
During Covid, ministers have been allowed to anonymously stab Nphet’s back, under protection of confidentiality. One public official, on the public payroll, undermines another anonymously. No wrong-doing is revealed, no controversial secrets are disclosed in the public interest.
It’s all just self-promotion. I don’t know who the Irish Times’s “medical source” is. I could guess. So could you. But I don’t care who denounced Dr Holohan as a naughty boy. He is the chief medical officer, and his freedom of speech should exceed that of a Chinese female tennis player.
It’s remarkable that in this latest phase of a huge challenge to a society’s ability to defend itself, the frantic enlargement of the virus’s attack should be greeted with an absence of political initiative.
Followed by a silly whine from an anonymous person, badmouthing officials who may be right or wrong, but they are at least hard at work.
Eventually – listen to those trumpets blare – we heard from the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, when he tweeted on Thursday. Yes, that’s right, he tweeted. Fair play to you, Mick.
I read the first 10 words of his tweet: “Omicron continues to spread rapidly and is a serious threat.”
My God, there’s an eye-opener. It’s spreading, yeah, the oul Omicron? And you reckon it might be a serious threat, do you, Mick? Good man, Mick, we’ll keep an eye on that, so. There was some more to Mick’s tweet, but I didn’t want to get too excited.
The following day, New Year’s Eve, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly turned up on News at One.
It was one of those “Ah, c’mon, Minister, answer the bleedin’ question” interviews News at One does so well. The upshot was . . .
That thing that Naughty Tony Honohan said on Monday, about crowds and shops — that he was anonymously slagged off about on Wednesday? By Friday, the Government was agreeing with him, but insisted it hadn’t changed the policy.
Long sigh . . .