Derek Mooney: NPHET And Government Must Get Behind The One Mask

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From top: Taoiseach Micheál Martin; Derek Mooney

Fear not. This is not yet another Covid 19 article written by someone without an ounce of expertise. While I have a view on whether to move to level 4 or 5 or stick with level 3, it is not sufficiently informed as to risk inflicting it on you.

It is not that I haven’t attempted to inform my view. I have. I try to find and read analysis from a wide range of experts. This week that included checking out the website mention in that controversial full-page advert in Thursday’s Irish Times.

That was not a good move. While the Great Barrington Declaration appears at first glance to be endorsed by experts, delve deeper and you find that many of the endorsements are not what they seem.

How could anyone take any declaration seriously that claims to have the backing of: Dr Harold Shipman, Dr Coroh Nahvirus, Herr Dee Münitie, and consultant eye specialist, Dr Bernard Castle.

To be fair, the website was the exception. Most of what I have been reading has been informative, confusingly so. This stuff is not light reading, not least the articles on testing, from the widely used PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) tests, to LAMP (Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification) tests to antigen test kits to antibody ones.

After a few hours reading about tests and how some produce false positives or negatives it is hard for the lay person, like me, not to wonder if the problem with the current public debate has less to do with false positives and a lot more to do with false binaries and false dichotomies?

Though it is also attributable to the fractious nature of the social media environment in which a lot of this is being played out, I find that the discussion on Level 3 versus Level 5 has turned into a poisonous and polarised “ussuns” versus “themmuns”. A false dichotomy/false binary of government versus NPHET.

Debate descends into mindless gainsaying and sloganeering that would not sound out of place on the terraces of an old firm derby. It is just as vacuous to claim that NPHET’s decisions are based on panic as it is to say that ministers only care about protecting business.

Slight diversion. As bad as things are here, they have still not plumbed the depths to which DUP minister, Edwin Poots has dragged it in the North. Over the past few days he has been asserting that Covid rates can be broken down along sectarian lines. He reckons the rate of infection in nationalist areas is six times higher than in unionist ones. Might it have something to do with the fibres used in GAA county tops?

While it is reasonable for the public to be angry about Sinn Féin’s handling of the Bobby Storey funeral, that does not give folks a licence to sectarianise Covid-19.

Apart from anti-masker morons, almost no one has spoken as recklessly or irresponsibly on this part of the island. Nonetheless, dare to suggest on social media that you have qualms or concerns about the social and economic impact of moving to Stage 5 and you get accused of being anti science and pro coronavirus. Go the other route, say you back a full lockdown now and you get an equal and opposite outrage from the other side.

The choice is not, as one tweeter incongruously put it during the week, a zero-sum game of either being in favour of supressing the virus or of letting it rip through the country.

Saying that we need to learn how to live with the virus is not the same as saying that we should ignore infection and allow it to find its own level.

Not favouring a move to Level 5 and being against increasing restrictions is not arguing for allowing Covid 19 to spread, it is arguing that better enforcement of the existing rules may achieve greater compliance than introducing new ones.

Tightening the rules without first ensuring that you are fully and adequately enforcing the existing rules means further constraining those keeping to the existing ones, at best. At worst, it risks alienating some who feel they have played their part to date.

Without doubt there are groups, individuals and businesses ignoring and flouting the existing rules. Irish Twitter is daily agog with all sorts of examples of this, including (if accurate) the egregious case of a hotel in south west Dublin.

But recalcitrant rule breakers do not stop just because the rules get tougher, they stop because they get caught or fear getting caught.

But what percentage of the increasing number of cases are down to deliberate rule breakers? I have no idea, but I would be surprised if it were higher than the percentage due to inadvertent or negligent contact. Actually, I’d be absolutely shocked if it came anywhere next or near it.

Scan the provincial newspapers or local radio shows and you will find local GPs attributing or connecting increasing rates in their townland or county with funerals, matches, first communions and even schools.

Their claims are far from scientific just anecdotal, but they suggest that simply reducing the permitted size of gatherings is not sufficient by itself.

You need the added carrot and stick of greater public information and increased enforcement to thwart complacency, improve compliance and thereby reduce the opportunity for further outbreaks.

Writing in the Irish Times on Friday, Dr Jack Lambert said: “As we see Covid surge in Ireland, there continues to be an absence of a strong face mask message”. (In the interests of balance I should point out that NPHET’s Prof Nolan took to Twitter afterwards to peevishly decry Dr Lambert)

But Dr Lambert is right. We can see that for ourselves. There has been nowhere near sufficient highlighting of the importance of mask wearing (and I mean proper wearing, not the “off the nose” look favoured by some) or on social distancing or the importance of hand washing.

As Dr Lambert says, watch CNN any night and you will see a PSA on one of these three topics during every ad break. Are we seeing that here?

Nearer to home, the Scottish government has been praised for its direct public service advertising campaign, including this one on protecting elders.

Word of mouth “advertising” works just as well. As I mentioned here before, my mother lives in Spain. Fortunately, it is in a part in the south of Valencia which continues to have a low rate of Covid19. She reports that virtually no one ventures out of their homes without a mask. Having visited her there, I can attest to that.

Most people living there can relate a story about someone found not wearing a mask by the Guardia Civil or Policia local and being made to go with them to an ATM to draw out cash to pay the on the spot fine.

The stories varies a bit when it comes to the size of the fine. Some claim it was €75, some say €120 while others reckon it was €250. The variations increase when it comes to the identity of the miscreant.

While no one telling the story knows the culprit firsthand, they do know it that was definitely a man… or maybe a woman… from an urbanisation or community over here… or over there… who had only gone outdoors briefly to put out the bins/collect the post/walk the dog/visit a neighbour.

The point is this. When people believe there is a good chance of getting caught and fined, they do not take the risk. That is not the case here. It may have been in March, April and May. It is not the case now.

I have no doubt that both NPHET and the government – and by government I mean the entire apparatus, not just the political apex – are both doing their very best, based the best data and analysis available to them. They are both making mistakes and fumbling the communications, but these are errors based on good intent.

The reality is that everyone is learning how to respond to this pandemic, including the experts on the hoof. It is a steep learning curve and, as the Financial Times suggests in this very useful compendium of global data, has many paradoxes. Science never speaks with a single voice.

That the government and NPHET have both allowed and permitted competing narratives is still a major failing.

Varadkar’s Claire Byrne Show attack on NPHET was ill-judged, small wonder he seemed uneasy delivering it. Simon Harris’s constant commentary is not helping either, though it could also be argued that Harris only has the space as his successor’s communications have been less than stellar.

On the other side we have those NPHET sources willing to chat to the media and opine on the attitudes of those they are there to advise. These probably low-level folks should recall the warning cited by the West Wing’s Toby Ziegler (Season 3; episode 5):

“Those who speak, don’t know; and those who know, don’t speak.”

While their bosses should note that delivering advice via the media is not the way to ensure that future advice is heeded.

While governments in normal times are happy to have a few days of contrived “will they or won’t they” media speculation, it is usually where they want to keep the focus on themselves or want the public to feel relieved that they rejected the least favoured option.

These are not normal times, and this is not a contrived choice. A major decision that will impact the lives and livelihoods of many thousands of our fellow citizens must not be played out as a battle of wills between NPHET and the government.

We are all in this together – and that starts with the government and NPHET.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

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18 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: NPHET And Government Must Get Behind The One Mask

  1. Charger Salmons

    Is our Derek upset that Mr Poots is incorrect in his assertion about Catholic areas having infection rates 6 times higher than those of Protestant or merely because he has the temerity to assert them ?
    I presume Mr Poots has evidence to back up his claim – certainly our Derek doesn’t produce any to contradict it.
    It should be easy enough for our Derek to clear up this confusion.
    I’m sure BS would be happy with an addendum to his trenchant article.
    Seeing as we’re all in this together.

        1. Paulus

          I remember once, probably in the early-seventies, we were gathered around the telly watching the Late Late Show. Gay Byrne was introducing a musical family from Northern Ireland. Both parents and a large number of children featured. Having recited their long list of names, Gay turned to the camera in a mock-whisper and said:
          “They’re Catholics”

          My own arch-conservative parents were horrified!

          1. Janet, dreams of warm feet

            haha, my granny didnae get the memo she had 13,
            the other granny much more true to form stopped after one,
            I think being rural/ agricultural background plays a huge part ( messing aside)

  2. SOQ

    Oh boy- where to start- let’s begin with The Great Barrington Declaration. There was an organised campaign right from the start to discredit with false names but in reality, the only names which really matter are its authors and Derek conveniently ignores them, not only that but ignores what they have to say.

    Anti-masker morons- this despite the fact that paper after paper says that masks do not prevent the spread of viruses- so guilty of the political mudslinging he is complaining of I think. Of course Derek feels that wearing a mask is a priority over flying to and from Spain to see his mother so yeah- priorities.

    Lots of authoritarian punching down stuff about enforcing rules but not a mention of protecting the vulnerable. Now a word about how the majority of fatalities occurred in or from nursing homes and how the standard of care could be improved.

    We are all in this together? No we are bloody not. Some are expecting the bailiffs any day soon while others’ savings are at a record high. The poor are getting thrown under a bus while the professional classes complain about not being able to have a craic with their colleagues over a coffee- that is not the same thing- at all.

    1. Eoin

      Dismissing the Great Barrington Declaration because a few fools decided to troll it is either incredibly stupid or disingenuous. I don’t think the author is stupid. So he has dismissed the declaration to fit his desired narrative. He completely undermined his argument now for anyone with half a brain reading it. Well done.

    2. Micko

      Yup, sure aren’t we doing a great job in the nursing homes.

      We’ve managed to keep Covid out of them this tim…..

      Oh wait
      https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/covid-19-cases-confirmed-or-suspected-in-170-nursing-homes-1.4383184

      In fairness, Derek is scared. And how could he not be. Watching RTE pundits predicting mass graves and refrigerator trucks filled with more bodies than die naturally every year in Ireland. Up to 30k dead

      30 bloody thousand! Come off it Prof Gerry Killeen

      A man of his age must be petrified.

      That’s why people are ignoring all the other evidence around them.

      Fear. It’ll make people do and say anything

      Poor Derek. ;-(

      He’ll listen to anyone who promises to keep him safe – no matter how mad the suggestion is.

    3. Janet, dreams of warm feet

      I had dinner last week with a friend who works in a nursing home and was asking him.what the craic was, well apart from learning part of the job is having to go have a good cry from time to time because of the emotional wage of the job he told me some pretty interesting stuff,
      the part that stuck with me was to work with the vunerable all you need is a six week on line course with no practicals training…well pretty obvious what’s wrong with that,
      secondly staff are low paid and it’s hard work,
      so under trained and low paid and we wonder why coronavirus is a problem in nursing homes,
      the cost to stay there is high enough, maybe if staff were given the tools, incentives and wages to do a good job we would see less of a problem, unfortunately only money matters at whatever cost and fupp society, sounds like a familiar model.

      1. SOQ

        Most of those homes are a ‘for profit’ model so cost will be a consideration at every turn. What is required is for the state to step in and enforce best practices but that goes against the neoliberal ideology of FFG- so they won’t do it.

        Now that really is selfish behaviour.

        Instead they’d rather play the blame game and punch down on the little (wo)man droning on about non compliance and nonsensical rules when little if anything has been done to protect those at most risk.

        1. Micko

          Yup, and considering Covid is estimated to now be in 170 nursing homes right now, we’re prob going to see more and more death rise over the next few months. Sure nearly 60% of all Covid deaths so far were in nursing homes.

          Of course, the data on the ages of those who died WILL be released. But you have to know where to look for it and considering the mainstream media no longer report on the ages of those who died (they used to) – we’re gonna be in for a lot more scared people.

          It’s gonna be chaos – and we probably deserve it.

          1. Janet, dreams of warm feet

            it’s almost as is over and over in all management the same scenario is played out,care homes, healthcare, housing etc etc etc, fupp the working class and line our pockets, no civic duty or responsabilité just a hatred and meprise of the little man

    4. BS

      Oh it seems I gave silly old queen the benefit of the doubt on being an anti masker. Silly me.

      Do you wear one when out in public soq? Do you have any vulnerable or at risk friends/family members you visit?

  3. Cian

    Interesting article. I’d agree with a lot of it, however
    But recalcitrant rule breakers do not stop just because the rules get tougher, they stop because they get caught or fear getting caught
    I’m not too sure about this. Yhe harder the government forces people to comply the harder the people will push back. People are sick of this but the Garda starting to fine people will create an almighty lash-back. GO’D and like would be delighted.

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