PODIUM POLITICS Micheál Martin announcing the latest Government roadmap, ‘COVID-19 Resilience & Recovery 2021: The Path Ahead’, last week. Pic: merrionstreet.ie
A roadmap for the easing of restrictions has been released, and everyone is looking forward to the feeling of greater freedom.
Since Christmas, we’ve all been asked to keep a distance from loved ones, and it has not been easy. Most of us have complied, and one hopes the guidance for easing restrictions will be followed and people will do what they can to ensure the virus stays under control.
But it is also clear that many citizens are at breaking point, and frustration levels are growing. Faith in those imposing the restrictions is a crucial factor in the public’s mood and actions.
It has not been a good few weeks for the Government or the HSE. While there is nothing easy about having to rule during a pandemic, it’s fair to say that if both institutions were to be assessed, their grades would very low indeed. Recent opinion polls have confirmed as much.
This stands in marked contrast to this time last year, when there was an almost fawning love for the Government and HSE leaders – something that seemed excessive to many at the time and to more in retrospect. Many failures of the very recent pre-pandemic past were quickly forgotten. Perhaps understandably, with the level of fears over the virus and the need for national solidarity.
But as time has gone on, the more difficult it has become for people to maintain the faith they had a year ago.
It’s not merely about decisions taken. The decision to reopen society to the extent that happened before Christmas was clearly a terrible move, although some of that criticism has to be offset by the arrival of the UK variant and how transmissive that has proven to be.
While the chasms between opinions about restrictions are growing wider, the reality is that with case numbers remaining stubbornly high, it is hard to make a definitive argument for the full reopening of society.
Every decision the Government made last week about the gradual reopening of society comes with risk. You cannot envy them that responsibility, as well paid as many of us might argue they are.
But the lack of faith many people have in the powers that be is not merely about the decisions being made. It is also about the other things we demand in our leaders – leadership, communication and fortitude.
Such qualities have been lacking far too often.
And in such a vacuum it is easy for many to pick holes in lockdown decisions and for unrest to fester.
Right now we are moving from one crisis to the next, many of them self-inflicted by Government, others part of endemic cultural problems in the public service and associated spheres.
Often, the focus tends to be on the wrong areas. Perhaps too much is being made of the vaccine targets when the Government is at the mercy of suppliers (although our Government didn’t seem close to ready enough for an efficient rollout, despite the visible and predictable need for a solid roll-out plan months before the first vaccine arrived).
However, the scandal in recent weeks at the Beacon Hospital showed up not just private hospitals, but also the response of Government.
That the CEO of the hospital thought it acceptable to give 20 teachers from his children’s school to excess vaccines while many people in much greater need of them were in much closer proximity to the hospital – or, indeed, in the hospital itself – speaks volumes. It exposes the culture of entitlement at the heart of far too many people in prominent positions in Irish society.
It infuriated the public, yet the response from the Government was telling.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly initially insisted that the hospital ought to continue its vaccination programme. Only under ferocious pressure from the opposition and a furious general public did he complete a U-turn in 24 hours.
Like so many decisions in this country, Donnelly was being reactive.
True leaders know the path to chart. They don’t wait and see which way the wind is blowing.
Lack of leadership
Donnelly has shown scant leadership throughout his term. He hasn’t been the only one.
Communication from the Micheál Martin-led Government has been below par far too often. Ministers are often at odds with each other about what decisions have been taken, and infighting between the coalition partners has slowed progress.
If the Cabinet cannot present a united front in a crisis, then it follows that confusion will permeate through all of society too.
Perhaps the contrast in public mood this time last year was on account of the excellent and clear communication by the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and then Minister for Health Simon Harris.
Not that we ought to absolve Varadkar of censure. He has been central to many of crises in recent months, including a Garda investigation into the leaking of a confidential document negotiated with the Irish Medical Organisation to the president of a rival GP group in 2019.
The Beacon revelations came hot on the heels of RTÉ Investigates’ damaging revelations that the Department of Health, in conjunction with the HSE and the Department of Education, has been secretly using information from sensitive and private doctor consultations to build dossiers on children with autism involved in legal actions against the State. We could go on and on.
The quarantine debacle has been yet another example of how slow the Irish Government has been to act, and how poorly they have acted when they did.
Reports of blunders and unsuitable accommodation have been followed by debates over which countries ought to be on the quarantine list. There is debate this week over whether or not other EU countries ought to be included or not. Over a year into the pandemic, and we still haven’t clarity on this one.
New Zealand comparisons
Many comparisons have been made with New Zealand, the poster child for fighting Covid-19, decrying Ireland’s approach by contrast. On many levels it is an unfair comparison.
New Zealand is not part of a conglomeration like the EU. It is one state on two islands whereas we have two states on one island. As such it has many natural advantages over much of the rest of the world.
But ask yourself this: Had we a united Ireland would you be confident our country could repel the virus any better?
Certainly, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney’s comments in the past week about the need to allow citizens from other EU countries avoid quarantine on arrival in Ireland are quite telling.
As such it is hard to argue we would fare any better as a united island.
And that’s not just a slight on the powers that be, but a slight on all of us.
It is often said you get the government you deserve, and perhaps the unavoidable reality is that as a society, we are far too permissive about what we allow to happen on our watch.