The spreading of misinformation around the pandemic is an insult to health workers and those who died, the chief medical officer has said.
Dr Michael McBride stressed the importance of messaging around Covid-19, adding at times misinformation has undermined public confidence.
In an interview with the PA news agency, Dr McBride said as well as managing the virus, the health service has had to contend with self proclaimed experts on social media, false stories and baseless conspiracy theories.
Ahead of new lockdown measures set to apply from Boxing Day, Dr McBride urged the public to come together as they did in the spring.
“This is the first pandemic that we have tried to manage in a time of social media and I think that has been part of the challenge,” he said.
“More so than ever before, the disinformation, the misinformation, those that portray themselves as experts, those who use the benefit of hindsight to say ‘you should have done this’. It’s easy after the event when you know all of the characteristics of the virus you are dealing with.
“I think at times that has probably undermined public confidence.
It’s time for some who should know better to wise up, grow up and catch themselves on.Dr Michael McBride
“You’re managing Covid and managing the response to it, but you’re also trying to stop the false stories and baseless conspiracy theories from gaining traction.
“Unfortunately some people are spreading dangerous untruths and encouraging others to ignore vital public health advice.
“I’m aware of some malicious and harmful claims and frankly these false narratives are an insult to our hardworking and dedicated health and social care workers who are giving everything and more in the fight against Covid-19, as well as the all too many who have already lost their lives.
“It’s time for some who should know better to wise up, grow up and catch themselves on.”
Dr McBride said he recognised and empathises with the impact of social distancing.
“The measures the Executive has had to take have saved lives, there is unquestionably no doubt about that. The death toll, the number of people who had covid would have been significantly greater had those measures not been taken,” he said.
“However those measures in themselves have caused real harm to many people. We will be dealing with the consequences of that into the medium and longer term in terms of mental health and well being, the damage to people’s employment and life opportunities.
“There were no easy choices in this and no right answers, just a series of difficult choices, all with bad outcomes.”
He has urged the public to now “dig deep”.
“We need that same sense of coming together, of collectively digging deep to make sure that we save lives by getting this virus back under control in the next period of restrictions to make sure that our health service doesn’t get overwhelmed in what I think is going to be our most difficult challenge to date,” he said.
Dr McBride said he, like everyone else, is making sacrifices, such as not having seen his brothers or sisters in person since last year, and not having his in-laws to his home for Christmas dinner for the first time in 30 years.
“I’m no different than anyone else is in that respect, life events come and go, important birthdays pass without birthday parties, but the normal celebrations are just things that are not possible at this time,” he said.
“My experience pales into insignificance when you hear some of the harrowing stories of individuals who have had to say goodbye to loved ones over a zoom call.”
Looking back over the year, he recalled how confirmation of the first case had felt surreal.
He had been at a conference with Health Minister Robin Swann in Glasgow, when the first case was confirmed, and they rushed back to Belfast for a press briefing.
“We exercise for events such as this and there was almost part of me was hoping someone would say it’s only an exercise or a false alarm – there was that aspect of wishful thinking,” he said.
“The impact has been profound, but none of us would have thought a year later we would be rolling out a vaccine, which at least is the beginning of our pathway out of this pandemic in the current phase.
“The virus won’t go away, it will be with us to stay, of that I am absolutely confident but at least we can now look forward to a prospect, from late spring to summer, of a greater degree of normality and hopefully some of the restrictions can be gradually eased.”