Muddled messaging, fire fighting and blind panic

Comment & Opinion

DAMAGING PUBLIC CREDIBILITY Micheál Martin and his government are coming under for tardy, poor communications on Covid regulation changes. Pic: fiannafá

If mixed messaging was an art form, then the masterclass would have been the shambolic handling of the school face-mask issue. An ill-thought-out measure, the child of near-panic, it had all the hallmarks of a fire-fighting exercise, with nobody quite sure of where the fire hydrants were located or what might or might not happen when they were turned on.
It was at six o’clock on a Tuesday evening, long after the schools had closed, when school principals were contacted to be told that, by the following morning, all pupils from Third Class upwards would be required to wear face masks.
Not surprisingly, in the case of such an explosive announcement, the diktat bore no authorising signature; civil servants are no slouches when it comes to handling a hot potato.
The proposal itself was full of contradictions, but the message was that it would be up to school principals to implement the measure as best they could. An unmasked pupil who could not provide evidence of exemption from a doctor would be refused entry to school, the Minister for education herself confirmed; but then, as it was pointed out, there was no legal basis for a school to refuse admittance to a pupil, masked or not.
By then, the country’s GPs had entered the fray to assert that they would have neither the time nor the inclination to provide parents with letters of exemption for their school-going children.
What had started out on Tuesday as an abrupt diktat began to mellow to a polite request for cooperation, before becoming a near U-turn. A medical cert would still be required if a pupil wished to avail of an exemption. Then schools were given the discretion to decide if it is appropriate for a particular child to wear a mask, in which case a medical cert will not be required.
The Department of Education yesterday (Monday) revised its controversial instruction issued to schools last week, in which it directed that children in Third Class and higher should be refused entry to primary schools if they decline to wear a mask without medical reason.
In fresh guidance, the department told schools that ‘it is not intended that any child will be excluded from a school in the first instance’, stating that where a child presents without a face mask or covering, ‘schools will engage pragmatically and sensitively with parents’ and that where such engagement fails, the Department of Education will provide further support.
On a broader level, the decision by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, to write directly to parents telling them to mask their children, served to further widen the growing fissure between Nphet and the Government.
Cracks had already begun to show with resentment on the Government side against Nphet’s apparent readiness at all times to tell the grim truth, without first referring back to their political masters.
It is not hard to see why sharp feelings might arise between Nphet advisers and those who answer to the voter. Dr Holohan might well have the luxury of being able to tell the story just as it is, but it is the politicians who must go out and justify the measures to an increasingly resentful public.
The Nphet warnings about Omicron have been stark, but to say that ‘it is impossible to quantify the level of risk’, which may become clear ‘only when it may be too late for mitigation measures’, seems like an easy way out, however well intentioned it might be. Worse still, in the eyes of Government ministers, is Nphet’s media strategy, seemingly taking the liberty of speaking directly to the country, without keeping the Cabinet in the loop. Small wonder then at the Cabinet decision that all future Covid communications will be managed and delivered by the Government Information Service. And Minister Donohoe will not need in future complain that he hears of Covid restrictions piecemeal, while dealing with Government business in the Dáil.
Muddled messaging, of which the school mask issue is the latest example, has damaged public credibility in the handling of the crisis. Having endured through the worst of lockdown, the public’s disappointment at the latest turn of events is deep. That it was beyond the control of the Government is, to most people, neither here nor there.
The public mood has soured; the mix of anger, weariness and resentment will seek an outlet for blame, deserved or not. The school issue highlighted a lack of preparedness that the Government cannot afford to repeat too often.
Blind panic is a dangerous emotion on which to base a coherent response, and fire fighting is never more than a last-ditch response to an emergency.