ON THE BEAT Journalist and Ballyhaunis native Craig Hughes recently broke the Beacon Hospital vaccine rollout scandal in the Irish Daily Mail. Pic: Fran Veale
THE pandemic has slowed the pace of daily life for most people, but not for me.
The news cycle has been in overdrive since I started as political correspondent with the Irish Daily Mail in January 2020. My first day coincided with the general election being called, so I was sent straight out on the campaign trail following then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar around the country. I was told things would calm down after the marathon days and miles that were clocked up, but it flowed straight into the start of the pandemic.
It seems like a lifetime ago that I was at packed press conferences with the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan outlining scenarios that few of us could imagine coming to fruition. I never imagined that when the first lockdown was announced we would have to get used to a ‘new normal’ for so long. Things have settled into something resembling a routine.
I wake up at 8am and turn on Morning Ireland, and try and get out of the apartment for a run or a walk before properly starting my day at 10am, I’m fortunate to have Herbert Park and Sandymount strand close by.
I have a desk in a shared press room in Leinster House and there’s something similar on the top floor of the Convention Centre where the Dáil has been temporarily sitting. Monday is usually quiet so I tend to work from home, I’m fortunate to have a good home office.
The Cabinet meets on Tuesday so there’s normally a press briefing after that and then the Dáil sits on Wednesday and Thursdays. Normally it sits on a Tuesday as well but this has been cut back during in Level 5.
Friday I usually work from home and I’ll write a column if there is no major story I need to be covering. The Dáil sits in the Convention Centre on Wednesday and Thursday but I haven’t been going down there all that often.
The main benefit to being in Leinster House, typically, is to catch politicians in the corridor or canteen for an off-the-record chat. All conversations on the fringes are considered off-the -record, unless otherwise agreed.
It is the epicentre of the news cycle, everything emanates from there or makes its way there, and the access to politicians including senior ministers is unrivalled compared to other nearby democracies. I came close to leaving journalism a few times. Once in first year in college, but my Dad encouraged me to stick with it (thanks old man!).
Then about three years ago after finishing a data analytics course I toyed with entering the corporate nerd world. Thankfully I didn’t, and it would have been very easy for my parents to encourage me into something more stable, because I am one of those lucky people who wakes up and is excited about going to work.
At the time I was freelancing but everything changed after I broke the story about the infamous Dáil printer that was too big to fit inside the room it was intended for. Last time I checked it still wasn’t being used, after the major structural works to get it into the printing room, good thing it only cost €1.7m. The full-time job with the Mail came almost immediately after that. Not every story gets picked up by the rest of the media, no matter how good you might think it is yourself.
My editor told me to focus on the vaccine rollout from the very beginning, and I wrote lots of stories I thought should set the news agenda but didn’t. Crucially, it didn’t go unnoticed that I had a specialised knowledge of the rollout.
Last week I got a phone call from someone who said ‘I believe you’re the person to talk to about vaccine f*** ups?’ The source told me that they had heard teachers in the elite St Gerard’s School in Bray had been vaccinated at the Beacon Hospital.
That’s all, there was no suggestion that CEO of the Beacon was involved at this stage.
After confirming that the initial aspect I managed to get a high level source inside the Beacon who confirmed Cullen personally called the school to offer to vaccinate 20 teachers with ‘excess doses’. That opened a can of worms, and from there it hasn’t stopped.
The morning the story broke I was on the Claire Byrne Show on Radio One. Straight after me Aoife Stokes, who I used to work with in RTÉ, spoke about her mother who is a cancer patient at the Beacon.
She wasn’t called and offered one of these so-called ‘excess doses’ despite being a cancer patient at the hospital and living nearby.
The combination of a private hospital appearing to do a favour for a €7,240-a-year private school that the CEO’s children attend, coupled with hearing of a medically vulnerable person being overlooked ignited public outrage.
Countless stories like Aoife’s were told over the coming days. Stories of the most vulnerable in society being skipped in the vaccination queue were repeated over the following days as the significance of what happened set in.
My inbox has been full with people contacting me with more instances of queue jumping, and since then we’ve revealed further instances of failings within the vaccination programme.
It appears to be only the start of a much bigger story.
My current job has regrettably put an end to my soccer career. It seems like a lifetime ago that a young John Joe Finn, now of Getafe in Spain, was taking notes on the sideline watching me play for Ballyhaunis soon after he had signed a youth contract with Real Madrid. Cycling has replaced it as my new hobby, all going well I’ll be cycling from Cork to Sligo in August, just another challenge I’m looking forward too.
In conversation with Michael Duffy
If money was no object, what would you do all day?
A blend of travel writing and investigative journalism
Tell us something about yourself we don’t know?
I’m also known as ‘the nutmeg champion of the world’.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten?
A few mystery dishes in South East Asian street markets
Where’s your favourite place in the world?
What makes you angry?
People not answering my questions.
Your first hero?
Name three things that are always in your fridge?
Clean cut meals, yogurt, milk
Describe yourself in three words?
Argumentative, very argumentative
What makes you nervous?
Ireland’s defamation laws
Favourite TV show?
The Thick of It
Most famous person you’ve met?
Michael D Higgins
What do you miss most about being a kid?
Playing soccer every day
What’s your most prized possession?
Guitar my parents bought me for my 21st birthday
Best advice you ever got?
“The worst they can say is no.”
Describe Covid-19 in three words?
Frustrating. Terrifying. (Seemingly) Endless.