The Tanaiste coherently dismantled Nphet’s advice on Level 5 lockdown on RTE last night – but does he risk undermining others?
Leo Varadkar’s television tour de force is the talking point of the country today.
He dismantled Nphet’s advice in a coherent individual performance, but in doing so has risked undermining others.
His appearance on the Claire Byrne Live programme on Monday night was his first since a period of restricted movement when a close contact of his had tested positive for Covid-19.
Leo was back with a bang.
The diatribe was more devastating because there was no one to gainsay any of his points.
It was a one-on-one with Byrne, who at times looked as stunned at the performance as many thousands at home must have been.
But probably none would have been able to get a word in edgeways.
Leo’s philippic starkly set him apart from chief medical officer (CMO) Tony Holohan and the whole Nphet, but also knocked the rest of Government for six.
It contrasted sharply with Micheal Martin’s televised address on the main evening news, which was measured for moderation in all respects – apart from the clear warning that hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost if Nphet’s Level 5 recommendation had been adopted.
Leo acerbically made that point in his own live interview, and then made many more points – some directly critical of the public health advisers.
It showed that the key importance of livelihoods had been his stance in Cabinet (certainly supported by his ally Paschal Donohoe), and it was this that had seen the insertion of the jobs warning in the Taoiseach’s statement.
What seems to have irked Leo was the health experts becoming openly political. The public leaking of their Level 5 advice created a football that was kicked around at all levels of society – with ministers left stranded.
From a Health-savvy politician’s point of view, it was as if there was an attempt to reverse the traditional mantra that “advisers advise, ministers decide”.
Thus the former Health Minister, who nerdily checks statistics every day on the European Centre for Disease Control website and follows Covid developments worldwide, came dramatically on to the field of play.
And he promptly went in with both feet, studs high, on superstar Tony Holohan, showing scant regard for the latter’s sky-high public reputation to this point.
It was a jaw-dropping display.
The Nphet advice had “not been thought through properly,” the Tanaiste said. Those on the opposite side of the meeting with the three Government leaders (for which read Dr Holohan alone) had not been able to answer a string of questions that would flow from implementing their recommendation
The proposed lockdown had “come out of the blue,” and that was not acceptable, he declared coldly, as if keeping his anger suppressed for the cameras.
There had been no answer when it was asked at the encounter (almost certainly a Varadkar question): “What do we say to the 400,000 people who will lose their job tomorrow?”
The eventual reply was that it was “a political matter for us”, the Tanaiste said, barely concealing his annoyance.
Dr Varadkar pointed out that many countries in Europe had much higher levels of contagion than Ireland and “none of them are looking at this option” of a severe shutdown. They are all trying to limit the virus through other measures first.
“Yes, maybe we will be the first country in Europe to experiment with this circuit-breaker lockdown approach – but you know, we’d like it to be thought through. We’d like it to be considered. We’d like a Plan B.”
Israel is almost three weeks into a severe lockdown against the second wave and there is no sign of it working as yet, he said. Melbourne’s incarceration “started on July 7 – and it only now seems to be working,” three months later.
“All those things have to be thought through,” the Tanaiste said, adding that the advisers had been unable to saw whether, after a four-week lockdown, the situation in Ireland would actually have changed in any respect, and whether further house arrest would be required for the Irish people.
“We can’t say for certain if the country can afford a second lockdown,” Leo added, speaking purely in financial and economic terms. “Governments have a borrowing limit.”
If the Government “went off on a solo run, totally at variance with what all the other Europeans are doing,” our interest rates could be hiked up on such risk, he said.
No viewer could by now be in any doubt that the Fine Gael leader actively disliked solo runs – despite being privately criticised for them himself by his Fianna Fail partners in Government.
He dismissed the suggestion that the dilemma was between Health and Wealth. “No it’s not. It is the public interest always first.”
It could not be public health only. “We have to bear in mind the long-term impact of a prolonged second lockdown on people’s mental health, their incomes and their livelihoods. Poverty is one of the biggest killers, you know.”
Claire Byrne interjected to say Varadkar had “ripped his (Dr Holohan’s) rationale to shreds here tonight.”
She added: “You’re saying he came up with this crazy idea on a Sunday night and he hadn’t thought it through. So what happens going forward from here?”
Leo responded: “I didn’t say it was crazy. I said it hadn’t been thought through and there hadn’t been prior consultation.
“If we go down this route, we need to make sure it’s thought through, and if I was here tonight explaining why that decision was made, I would be able to answer the first ten questions you’ve asked me.”
The implication was clear, and did not need spelling out. Leo had just painted a picture of the Nphet meeting with Government.
“What has to happen now is that Government and Nphet have to get back on the same page,” he said. “We all want what’s best for the country. We all want to save lives.”
But this had “landed on us as a surprise on Sunday. That should not have happened. There should have been a meeting first. After the meeting, I think the CMO accepts that, and you won’t see a repeat of this kind of thing.”
Do you have full confidence in him, asked Claire Byrne.
“Oh, I do absolutely.”
As for Nphet, he tartly observed: “None of those people, for example, would have faced being on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment yesterday. None would have had to tell someone they were losing their job. None would have had to shutter their business for the last time.
“And I’m not talking about the economy. I’m talking about something that could have happened to half a million human beings tomorrow.
“The reason why politicians make these decisions is that we’re the ones who can see the bigger picture.”