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*Photograph: Natasha Barton

“The Government have lost the dressing room”. That was how I described the state of current political affairs on Clare FM’s Morning Focus having taken soundings from politicians from Government parties over the past weekend.

The announcement of restrictions, effectively closing most of the hospitality and entertainment industries a week before Christmas, was a body blow to hundreds of thousands of people. Indeed, the morning I spoke to Morning Focus was the same day restrictions came into effect, meaning tens of thousands of people were waking up that day out of a job for the third time in less than 2 years. Your heart simply must go out to them.

This is not to make light of the seriousness of Covid and its impact on the healthcare system. Having just concluded the phone call interview, my next port of call was my local GP to receive my booster vaccine. Real world data from various countries who were hit with Omicron first have shown the boosters effectiveness in reducing severe outcomes from the new variant, backed up by lab data compiled over the past few weeks. However, what had been suspected was that Omicron would be a far less virulent disease than previous variants. As I type, new figures from South Africa, Denmark, Canada and the UK all seem to point in that direction.

This begs the question, why are NPHET models predicting thousands of people ending up in hospitals with Covid in January, when there is no scientific basis for assumptions of that nature? I get that they wish to get ahead of the disease given what happened last Christmas, but at a time that Ireland was seeing falling numbers in our hospitals and a steady daily case average, why the need to rush into doomsday models and imposition of restrictions? Surely waiting a couple of days to gather more useful real-world data on Omicron could have proven beneficial. What’s more, why is no one in Government seemingly asking this question?

The fact that the Tánaiste went on national radio on Thursday morning, ahead of cabinet sub-committee meetings, and effectively informed the public that new restrictions were on the way, completely undermined the process in place for the decision making and severely undermined the position of Taoiseach and his authority as the head of Government. This has irked many from FG and FF alike who are growing increasingly tiresome of the Tánaiste’s “media attention seeking” as one FG Cllr described it to me. “If Government are to retain the confidence of the people, they need to be seen to be calling the shots, not NPHET”, one FF politician said to me when I asked for their view on the situation and Martin’s leadership.

Indeed, the public perception appears to be that NPHET are now completely calling the shots, with Government too afraid to call their recommendations into question, given events last Christmas. But then, who is providing oversight to NPHET? Certainly, their previous modelling has proven overly conservative with the delta wave providing 25% less cases, and therefore hospitalisations, than even their most optimistic predictions. Are these models which have now put thousands of people out of work in any way accurate? They might be, but without full transparency and oversight, it’s hard for the public to retain confidence in the message, especially when they cling to the farcical line that high case levels in schools are not being caused by in school transmission, but by adults giving Covid to kids outside the school grounds. It’s a patently nonsense statement, and quite incredulous they are sticking to it, despite the mountain of evidence and accepted international opinion and advice to the contrary.

Furthermore, NPHET’s inexplicable shelving of expert reports advocating for HEPA filters for schools and antigen testing months ago, only to have to climb down later when public opinion became too much to bear, underlined the lack of trust people have in the messaging from the expert group. As of yet, there has been no good reason offered by NPHET for its refusal to follow international best practise in these areas, which could well have mitigated many of the cases we’ve seen over the past few months. Again, there has been no coherent voice from Government, at least publicly, questioning these decisions and precious few from the Opposition benches as well, it should be noted. Clare’s own Michael McNamara has proven himself adept at asking these questions on our behalf in the Dáil yet is receiving few if any answers.

In any event, if public confidence is to be restored, it will require changes. If Government itself won’t change then perhaps a change of Government is needed. Question only remains, will that be a change of personnel from the current coalition, or will there be a change of Government parties altogether?

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