Brendan Hoban: Thank God for NPHET

We should be thanking God for Nphet

Western People July 13th 2021

When James Geoghegan, the Fine Gael candidate in the recent Dublin Bay South byelection, was asked during a candidates’ debate on RTÉ’s Week in Politics programme for a comment on the reopening of indoor drinking and dining, he responded: ‘The idea that we are shut to September is an outrageous suggestion’ and argued that antigen testing must play a part in the reopening of society.

Geoghegan, a politician, in the throes of a by-election campaign, in which he was neck-and neck with joint-favourite Ivana Bacik, was making a pitch for support. The last thing he wanted to do was to alienate any cadre of voters, least of all that burgeoning constituency of middle-class Ireland who like to eat out most of the time and that even greater constituency of Irish drinkers who need a pub environment to enjoy their alcoholic tipple.

Context, of course, is everything. I suspect that most listeners on hearing a politician on the make endorsing a twin populist anthem – reopening pubs and supporting antigen testing – would have thought to themselves, as Mandy Rice Davis famously said in a very different context, ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’

Geoghegan was deliberately endorsing the most popular side of an ongoing public debate – should we reopen society, specifically the present twin sticking points of wet pubs and restaurants.

On one side is Nphet, the National Public Health Emergency Team, who urge caution in view of the spectacular number of estimated Covid cases – possibly 2,000 a day in four weeks’ time – in the expected aggressive wave of the new Delta variant during July and August. And Nphet is not convinced by the wisdom of antigen testing.

On the other side are the voices of those who are demanding that society (and the economy) reopen. Both sides seek to justify their conflicting aims.

Nphet argues from a mathematical or scientific perspective. Their ‘modelling’ has been eerily accurate so far in the predictions that have emerged from the application of their highly regarded academic and professional expertise. Their focus is on public health. And they’re not convinced that antigen testing is safe or reliable. Others point to the economic argument, the damage being caused to the economy, the debts accruing, the businesses and jobs lost, the mental health legacy of the lockdowns and so on. The antigen test, they point out, is in widespread use outside Ireland.

While heretofore, Nphet was in the driving seat with a huge and undisputed reputation for care, calm, caution and public responsibility with Dr Tony Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer, in particular being held in the highest regard, the tide is now turning.

A continuous public voicing of unease, impatience, frustration, resentment and sometimes anger has created a populist wave being surfed by self-interested parties who are challenging the previous public confidence in Nphet’s analysis and advice. A number of factors has given momentum to the anti-Nphet campaign: doubt has been cast on the Nphet projections and demands presented for an independent assessment of them; publicans are now demanding that Nphet attend their meetings with the government; Ryanair and a pilot’s group are lecturing Nphet on the virtues of antigen testing; and Dr Holohan has been subjected to such abusive attacks by self-interested groups that the Minister for Health has had to defend him.

Throwing more petrol on the anti-Nphet fire are a number of groups with their own agendas who claim that Nphet is unfairly targeting them. These include church groups unhappy that important family occasions – First Communions, Confirmations, Baptisms – are not given special consideration in view of the exceptional efforts to sanitise churches and to implement the official protocols. But, as the government has continually reminded church authorities, the problem, for example with First Communions, is not what happens in the church but the gatherings for the now standard party from all corners of Ireland. The plain and simple fact is that while church authorities can control the ceremony, the party is something else altogether. Hence, the danger.

That advice and direction from the government, Nphet, the Chief Medical Officer and the HSE has been clear and consistent from the very beginning and is only adjusted when the science indicates a lessening of the danger of contracting the virus. That seems sensible and responsible, particularly now in the context of the expected (and inevitable) increase in the numbers contracting the aggressive Delta variant.

It was disappointing to say the least that from the outset of the pandemic, church authorities didn’t immediately and consistently urge the adoption of the government protocols for the common good and, not give credibility to the vested interests by joining an ever-lengthening queue of groups who requested and sometimes demanded precedence. I’ve argued here before that if the church had adopted that stance it would have given prophetic witness to a central tenet of our Christian faith – the importance of sacrifice for the common good and for public health.

Common sense demanded that First Communions and Confirmations could be postponed indefinitely and that the fall-out from that necessary decision – disappointment of children, cancellation of parties, buying of outfits, etc. – though all important and enjoyable in terms of faith and family, were not cumulatively more important than the loss of life to Covid.

The trouble with interest groups arguing their own individual cases is that they lose sight of the larger picture. It’s sad, without using a stronger word for it, that Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, the putative head of the Catholic Church on this island, felt that the manner of the announcement of the recent postponement of Communions and Confirmations disrespected Catholics and that he was’ extremely disappointed’ with ‘the cavalier approach to communication’ from the authorities.

If over 50 years ago Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) recognised that in a different world the Catholic Church would ‘lose many of her social privileges’, after the misery of scandals and reports over the last three decades in Ireland, it defies belief that some Catholic Church leaders are still demanding precedence and ‘respect’.

As if the authorities hadn’t more to think about.

Instead of criticising Taoiseach Martin, Tánaiste Varadkar, Dr Holohan, Nphet and other authorities for imagined slights to our self-importance, we should be on our knees thanking God that key decisions over health and life are in such sure and responsible hands – rather than with chancers like Boris Johnson.







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  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    Brendan Hoban: Thank God for NPHET

    Excellent article, Brendan. Very well said.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    (Brendan Hoban, Thank God for NPHET)

    Again and again in every compartment of this fragile ship we call Planet Earth it turns out that the voices of prudence and restriction are right, and those of recklessness and wishful thinking are wrong.

    Everywhere we find anti-vaxxers and other contrarians endangering and misleading their fellow-citizens and even threatening the voices of common sense.

    Even the fully vaccinated are not out of the woods, and have not acquired superman status, for new fronts are opening up all the time.

    Brendan gives witness to bedrock sanity, the most valuable of virtues at this time.

  3. Ger Hopkins says:

    Certainly not going to get in to a discussion about the merits or otherwise of NPHET’s advice to the government. There are other forums for that.

    But I do have a point about this that involves the Church.

    Last Thursday night I was up in the Phoenix Park at the anti lockdown rally (about 1500 people). Beautiful warm Summer evening. Wonderful friendly family atmosphere, music, smiles, very relaxed.

    Up to a few years ago if I’d mentioned that I went to Mass on a Sunday I’d have been looked at a bit peculiarly and people might just have said ‘each to his own’. On Thursday, at the demo, people who barely knew each other were not only swapping details about Masses but how some of them got underground Masses during the lockdown (still going on – you need to reply to an email on a Friday and you are sent the time and location for Sunday – a unit on an industrial estate). Three people made the same kind of comment: they wouldn’t have dreamed of going to Mass a couple of years ago but now… One girl had escaped arrest at a Rosary in Dundalk by climbing a wall. They were comparing sermons. There was a feeling of a shared private thing. Later on I met two people who recognised each other from a Latin Mass in St Kevins, Harrington St., the previous Sunday.
    Something is stirring. I don’t know what it is. It’s still very early.
    Walking up Chesterfield Avenue to the demo I met a woman who compared notes with me about the different Rosary Rallies around Dublin. (Phoenix Park first Saturday, Nth Earl St Saturday closest to the 13th of the month and also the Coastal Rally.)

    Part of it is obviously the perception that the things valued by the Church are not seen as valuable by those making decisions about the Pandemic. Which has made the Church a natural ally. Going to Mass is taking a stand. And a bit exciting.

    But also, while the Church’s influence has obviously waned, it is still a popular structure independent of the state. An alternative national institution. Something that was useful to everyone from Karol Wojtyla to Catholics of the Bogside.

    All are welcome.
    I know people on this site would welcome these newly returned Catholics but would it be difficult? Or just a source of happiness that the connection is being made?

    P.S. There’s a demo planned for the Custom House this Saturday. It’s expected to be big enough to change the discussion. Scoop for this week’s column Brendan?

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