Former Nphet member expresses regret over failure in communication ahead of post-Christmas 2020 Covid surge

Philip Nolan says slide on potential Covid cases after festive period ‘created utterly the wrong impression’

The chair of the National Public Health Emergency Team’s epidemiological modelling advisory group during the Covid-19 pandemic has expressed regret that a failure in communication allowed the spread of the virus to increase “uncontrollably” during the Christmas period of 2020.

Philip Nolan, now the director general of Science Foundation Ireland, said that had he communicated “more forcefully” when discussing modelling and social restrictions for Christmas 2020 with the Government, in his view “things might have been different”.

After households were allowed to mix during the festive period, daily new case numbers spiralled into the thousands in early January, leading to the imposition of the longest lockdown of the pandemic.

In late November 2020, Nolan and other members of emergency team explained to Government that even a “modest increase” in the reproduction number of Covid-19 in Ireland over the Christmas period would lead to new cases reaching 400 a day in early January. However, at the time daily new cases were at 250 and falling, according to Mr Nolan, leading to the view that 400 “didn’t sound unmanageable”.


“The final slide of the presentation [from Nphet to the Government] said cases could exceed 400 in early/mid-January 2021. This created utterly the wrong impression,” said Prof Nolan when addressing the Royal Irish Academy on Wednesday evening at an event entitled, There’s So Much to Know: Post-Pandemic Reflections on the Human Thirst for Knowledge and its Value and Utility.

He showed members of the academy the models that were presented to Government in this November 2020 meeting.

“The reality that it [new case numbers] would be rising rapidly and uncontrollably, [from] three, 400 cases a day into the thousands a few days later was lost - both in these words, which I take responsibility for, and lost off the top right-hand corner of this plot, to anything other than experts.”

‘Political pressure’

Prof Nolan acknowledged the “political pressure” to ease restrictions on social activity and reopen hospitality in the Christmas period, but affirmed that it was “impossible for me to get out of my head, that if I communicated the import of this model better and more forcefully, things might have been different”.

He also expressed his view that Ireland was “not yet better prepared” to deal with any future pandemics, but that measures were “beginning to be put in place” to protect against similar public health challenges.

“We are capable of preparing ourselves,” said Prof Nolan. “There is a formal review done, sitting on the Minister’s desk. There has been lots of thought and lots of reflection.

“The talent is there, and the investment required on the Government’s part is modest in the grand scheme of things. It will prepare us for the next pandemic but it will also give us a much more effective health system.

“We understand far too little about how society works, far too little of the human social sciences. We know a great deal, but I would assert not enough, and what we did know we didn’t use enough during the pandemic, and we’re not using enough to make public policy and democratic processes.”

During his lecture, Prof Nolan compared the response to the pandemic to what will be required by State bodies to combat other challenges such as climate change. “So often, sitting at my desk during the pandemic, considering how to understand, explain and how to manage the appropriate the appropriate technical and social response to some new development, it was hard to escape this thought - if we were finding this so challenging, how are we going to successfully address the climate and biodiversity loss?

“There are two real sources of consummate hope and inspiration. The first, the extraordinary creative and intellectual capacity of the academic colleagues, the public health experts and the public servants with whom I worked. The second was this particular bond and trust that developed between that group, the political system and the public.”

Nathan Johns

Nathan Johns

Nathan Johns is an Irish Times journalist