Members of Cabinet see Holohan as a ‘bit of a God’ – but even God has his critics
'When the country shut down, Holohan is the man with the information and the authority to whom the public has been asked to turn," wrote Tom McTague in 'The Atlantic', published earlier month.
In a piece titled 'The Faucis of the World', Mr McTague explained that Ireland's chief medical officer Tony Holohan, and counterparts Anthony Fauci in the US and Chris Whitty in the UK, are examples of men "thrust into positions of authority, power and influence" at a time when a worried population was looking for guidance.
They ascended to power in the shadow of Covid-19, said McTague, transforming from largely anonymous public health experts, to overnight celebrities, trusted authorities on all things Covid, and, to varying degrees, "surrogate leaders".
In Holohan's case, there can be no doubt that he is the face of the country's Covid-19 response, fronting daily press briefings on live TV. Three months ago, he was largely an unknown civil servant. Now he's a household name, his cult status immortalised in a mural on the front of a Dublin pub, depicting him as a modern-day superman.
Within the corridors of power that is Dáil Éireann, it has been reported that some members of Cabinet see him as a "bit of a God".
But even God has his critics and Dr Holohan's word, taken as gospel by some, hasn't gone without challenge.
One of the first areas of conflicting opinion in relation to his Covid-19 advice centred on nursing homes, a sector that has since experienced more than 1,000 deaths associated with the virus.
In a saga that has been revisited many times since, on March 6, Nursing Homes Ireland (NHI) imposed nationwide visiting restrictions on private facilities. Four days later, Dr Holohan said the blanket restrictions should be lifted because they were premature and affected residents' social interactions. The conflicting approaches caused significant problems within the sector.
Such was the level of deference to Dr Holohan's approach that several homes were confronted with disgruntled family members, quoting the chief medical officer and demanding access. In one case, a video clip of Dr Holohan's comments was shown to nursing home staff as a reason to permit a visit.
Three days later, on March 13, the visiting ban was imposed, or re-imposed, as part of package of restrictive measures recommended by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet). Even this week, controversy around this sequence of events, and the consequences they may or may not have had in relation to how the virus ravaged nursing homes, was still being generated.
Speaking at a Covid-19 response committee hearing on Thursday, Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy on Covid-19, said that visitors can bring the virus into nursing homes.
The statement flew in the face of advice from Dr Holohan, who has previously said on radio that "visitors did not bring the virus into nursing homes", in response to questions on whether Nphet should have acted sooner to protect long-term residential care settings.
Furthermore, in an interview on RTÉ radio yesterday morning, Dr Holohan vigorously defended his position into how almost 1,000 lives have been lost to Covid-19 in nursing homes.
The deaths, he said, were at the lower end of the mortality experience in European countries and a lot of reporting had focused "over-simply" on the proportion of deaths in nursing homes. Dr Holohan said that unlike many other countries, Ireland had reported comprehensively on probable deaths and confirmed deaths in hospitals and right across the community.
He said: "There has been a lot of reporting and commentary in relation to this that we think is erroneous, focusing over-simply on the proportion of deaths that occur in this country that are attributed to people living in nursing homes."
There is no dispute that more than 900 residents of nursing homes died of Covid-19 - accounting for more than half of deaths - and it is their families who are counting the cost.
The comments came in the same week that Dr Holohan and the experts on Nphet were urged to consider a policy "rethink" in relation to the steps being taken to overcome the virus. In an open letter, signed by a number of leading scientists and academics, there was a plea to "crush the curve" rather than learning to live with the virus.
When asked if he took on board the criticism of the current policy in the letter, Dr Holohan said he "always listens to anything anyone has to say who has a different perspective". There were "language differences" in the letter, he claimed, before basically dismissing its authors' claims that the virus can be eliminated.
"I think there are language differences in the words that have been used to describe the approach here," he said.
"We have been clear from the beginning that if we can prevent infections that's exactly what we want to do. Minimise the number of cases as low as we can possibly go. We have never said we can see a level of infection in this which is tolerable."
He added: "There is no country that is in a position to say eliminate the virus in the way that we eliminate something like the polio virus, where you can say to the public that you can go about your normal business without fear of being infected with this, which us where we are in a position to say with something like polio.
"We don't think we will be in a position to eliminate in that sense."
There can be no doubt that extraordinary measures had to be taken to deal with the coronavirus crisis. Here, like almost everywhere, huge decisions on how to deal with the pandemic are being directed by teams of experts. The Taoiseach and the Health Minister, in particular, have made a virtue of being led almost entirely by scientists and senior medics - Dr Holohan.
So far, the message has been that with the CMO in charge, the country's response to Covid-19 has been both proportional and effective. However, there have been hints along the way that not everyone involved in making the decisions has been singing off the same hymn sheet.
Last month, Dr Holohan's views on the reopening of schools appeared to differ from those of the Taoiseach. On foot of advice from the WHO and a report from the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) saying children were at least risk from the virus and do not appear to be super spreaders, the Taoiseach said reopening schools and childcare was "among the safest things that we can do".
Dr Holohan differed, saying only a small number of studies had looked at the issue and it was "an entirely different thing to conclude in policy terms that we have enough evidence to say that transmission from children does not occur".
Then there is the ongoing debate over the two-metre rule. In March, the WHO issued advice calling for people to obey a social distance of one metre.
Speaking at a Department of Health briefing on May 25, Dr Holohan said that he understood the position businesses were in, but that the rule was staying in place.
"We think, for the moment, two metres is a reasonable compromise given where we are," he said.
Many businesses have said they would be unable to reopen unless the social distancing guide of two metres is reduced to one metre. When Government ministers raised the issue at a Cabinet meeting, Dr Holohan told them that reducing the two metres to one metre could increase the risk of infection.
However, minutes from a meeting of Nphet from March 16 noted a lack of evidence in distinguishing between one metre and two metres. Like much of the advice that has been given to date, Dr Holohan has said the rule is under "constant review".
The same could be said for the ever-changing advice on face masks, which has led to a state of mass confusion among the public.
During a press conference on May 15, Dr Holohan said: "The evidence isn't very strong in relation to the value [of face masks in stopping the spread of Covid-19], and we do have good evidence for this disease that hand-transmission is really important, so hand-washing has to be maintained."
That interpretation had changed by this week, when people were scold-fully told "we could do better" on the wearing of masks.
The following day, on RTÉ's 'Morning Ireland', Dr Holohan said he wanted more people to wear masks when shopping and travelling on buses and trains.
He added that it was an "important measure" that he had always been clear about and that he would like to see a higher level of public compliance.
Indeed, Dr Holohan revealed a radio and television ad campaign is to be rolled out in the coming days.
"Maybe we think the message hasn't gotten through, even though we have been clear," he said.
The slap on the wrist for the non-compliant public came after the WHO's Dr Nabarro, in a statement also made at the Covid-19 committee hearing this week, said Ireland must move from "should do to must do" when it comes to the message on wearing face coverings.
As the country exits lockdown, Dr Holohan's central role as the leading voice on the crisis remains undisputed. However, his disciples (the politicians) may have started to stray from his message, as evidenced by last week's dramatic announcement that the roadmap out of lockdown was to be fast-tracked.
Whether or not the public, so far relatively compliant with his requests, will maintain faith in his scriptures remains to be seen over the coming weeks and months.