While there is mixed reaction on the merits of the decision not to take Nphet’s advice to move to level five, of immediate and more serious concern is the apparent discord between our public health experts and the Government.

Criticism of Nphet is nothing new as witnessed over recent weeks where public health advice to Government has been questioned by a wide range of interest groups which in itself further erodes public confidence in public policy. 

At a crucial juncture in the fight against Covid-19, it is vital that good governance is restored among all stakeholders in the body politic to ensure public confidence is maintained in our policymaking process.

Our Government now finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to walk a political tightrope in maintaining public health and safety while attempting to re-boot our economy and ensure the maintenance of as near to a normal society as possible.

Certainly, by European standards we had a rather severe experience of the pandemic, and we now see increasing cases emerging on a daily basis and surpassing those of many of our neighbours. 

While many EU states acted faster in strict adherence to mask-wearing and social distancing, the implementation of public health policy here based on expert advice has saved thousands of lives and ensured that our already vulnerable health service was not overwhelmed by the pandemic.

Despite recent calls from some quarters to place less emphasis, or indeed more worryingly, to ignore expert advice, it is now glaringly obvious that the use of evidence-based best practice in policymaking is the only way forward for the Government.

In normal circumstances, governments often have to make hard decisions in a heated political environment on behalf of sectors of society with different policy objectives.

 

The unique aspect of policymaking in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic is a broad acceptance by the Irish people of the ‘we’re all in this together’ message meant that making hard decisions was made somewhat easier. 

The absence of political opportunism and grandstanding from the main opposition parties in the early stages of the crisis was a most welcome feature on this new landscape, a feature that has certainly now disappeared. 

What has also disappeared is an adherence to reasonable guidelines on social distancing as witnessed by mass gatherings over recent weeks. Such irresponsible action by certain sections of society clearly indicates that we are no longer in this together.

Regardless of the amount of praise or criticism that our Government will receive, in the final analysis, it has to prioritise choices and balance political needs with social good and the public interest which is now essentially public health. 

By protecting public health, we also ensure the protection of our economy and wider society. In so doing, like any other area of public policy, the fight against Covid-19 will only succeed if we look to expertise and international best practice for solutions.

In the face of increasing criticism, the challenge for the Government in the coming weeks is to ensure that a clear and consistent message is conveyed to the Irish people in order to reignite the social solidarity that we all witnessed in the early stages of the pandemic. 

The capacity to mobilise such solidarity is predicated on an all-Ireland/island approach and a clear communications strategy where a rational and evidence-based approach is taken to protect our nation’s public health. 

Let us take clear and decisive action to rectify any identified deficiencies in policy making and consider reallocating areas of our civil and public service to dedicated tracing activities in the fight against Covid-19.

A measure of the health of our body politic is an indicator of whether our society is capable of rationally debating issues with a view to finding common purpose. 

In the short term, this common purpose is solely the protection of our nation’s health within a functioning economy and society. Policy-based on evidence-based best practice has proved its worth in the fight against one of the greatest threats that has ever faced our country. 

There is no reason why we should abandon a strategy that has already saved thousands of lives. Let us improve our testing, tracing, and isolation process and ensure that clear and consistent messaging emerges from all areas of Government and the wider public service in the fight against Covid-19. 

An uncertain future points to the need for a continuation of evidence-based public policy solutions that have been implemented successfully in other jurisdictions. 

Most of all, courage and political maturity will be required by a wide range of stakeholders including government, opposition parties, interest groups, but more especially by the Irish people.

Dr Patrick McGarty is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the  Institue Of Technology Tralee.

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