Nphet’s shock recommendation caused disbelief and anger within Government

Relationship between politicians and public health experts has been badly damaged

The first sign that something major was afoot came on a quiet Sunday afternoon when an unsuspecting public learned through the media that the State’s public health team was to meet urgently.

Later that evening the bomb landed. The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) had recommended that Ireland move to the highest restrictions possible, Level 5.

The level of anger in Government circles in the wake of the story on Sunday night can scarcely be overstated. Most learned of the Nphet advice from the media. Members of the Cabinet who spoke to The Irish Times on condition of anonymity all told of a similar reaction.

Hospital Report

“I couldn’t believe it,” said one Minster. “I simply couldn’t believe it.”


Another senior source said the Sunday night bombshell had caused “complete havoc in homes all over the country”. Aides and officials in all parts of the administration were unrestrained in their condemnation of Nphet’s move.

“Completely bizarre,” was one description. “Unbelievably irresponsible”, was another.


Martin Fraser, secretary general to the Government and the State’s most senior civil servant, was said by one person who met him on Monday to be “very, very unhappy”. “Everyone is,” the source continued. “Done without any consideration of the wider social and political impact,” said another source.

Government believed chief medical officer Tony Holohan was trying to bounce it into a lockdown, and they weren’t having it.

“Tony thinks it’s still March. But it’s not. The context has changed,” said one insider.

The Government has railed against Nphet for the manner in which the story has emerged. They blame Nphet for a leak which effectively bypassed agreed reporting structures designed so proposals are vetted by the Senior Officials Group – chaired by Mr Fraser – before being considered by the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid.

Fine Gael sources in particular acknowledge that there is little they could have done to change the message itself – it is the job of the Nphet to offer advice based on their best judgment – but how that message was delivered is the crux of the problem.

Nphet sources say data from the second half of last week did not show a sufficient slowing of the progress of the disease in Dublin, and rapid growth elsewhere.

Opinion is divided on whether the return of Holohan played a role. Nphet sources believe the decision was primarily data-driven, but said his personality, which is known to be forthright and forceful, cannot be discounted as a factor.

Caught unawares on a Sunday night, and fearful of the wave of anger and incredulity from the public and business owners, the Government scrambled to respond.

Journalists were briefed that it was absolutely not a given that the Government would accept these recommendations, setting up a showdown for Monday.

That afternoon, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan met with Dr Holohan for what has been described as a “fraught” and “robust” exchange. Other Ministers also attended.

Varadkar had eight questions for the chief medical officer, sources in the room say. He asked if there was another lockdown, what were the metrics for success or failure. How long would a lockdown last in reality and ultimately where could the Government go if Level 5 did not work.

He is understood to have said that Ireland needed to have a “plan ready in case this does not work, a plan for re-opening if it does, and a plan for communications”.

The final message was that there should not, and could not, be a “panicked response”.

And yet for all the focus on Varadkar, those present point out that it was Micheál Martin who took the lead in presenting the Government’s arguments.

For those who witnessed the exchanges in that room, it was evident that the relationship between Government and the Nphet was changed forever and gone was the blanket acceptance of their recommendations.

Publicly, however, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said at a post-Cabinet press conference that the relationship with the public health team was “absolutely fine”. Minutes later on RTÉ, that idea would be blown out of the water.

Varadkar was preparing to go live on air with Claire Byrne. Those who work closely with him said he had indicated that he wanted to explain to the public “truthfully and frankly” why the Government had snubbed the Nphet’s advice. He went on to tell a visibly surprised Byrne that the recommendations were not thought through, there should have been prior consultation, and that it would never happen again.


Unsurprisingly, the Tánaiste’s interview caused a backlash. One Nphet source described it as a “vote of no confidence” in the team.

Nphet members took issue with several specific aspects of the Tánaiste’s interview, including when he said that HSE chief executive Paul Reid didn’t believe hospitals were going to be overrun, and that Nphet had not consulted with the HSE’s board. One said Varadkar had “significantly misrepresented” Nphet’s arguments on hospital capacity, and that the team had structured reporting on beds available to it, as well as significant representation from the HSE in its membership.

Asked about these comments, a spokesman for Varadkar said: “The Tánaiste does not wish to respond to anonymous briefings. It’s important that the Government and Nphet should be on the same page in fighting the virus.”

The impact of the row on the long-term relationship between Nphet and the Government divides opinion. One source on the team said they could not “see Nphet surviving Leo’s onslaught”. Others are more sanguine.

“It’s Leo, and everything is about Leo. I personally find it too difficult to get too exercised about it because it’s kind of what he does.”

The long-term impact remains to be seen; some members believe the structure of Nphet needs reform, but any move to do so now could seem like retribution. Most agree the relationship is badly damaged, but one source said that was “not the end of the world, as long as measures are implemented, and the public get the message”.

Politically, both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have the broad support of their colleagues within Government. One Fianna Fáil TD wandering around Leinster House yesterday shyly admitted to cheering Varadkar on while he was on RTÉ.

Ultimately, however, officials in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil accept that the relationship must be reset. Some point out that when Varadkar was taoiseach, he spoke with Holohan for at least an hour every weekend.

Some at Cabinet are now wondering how relationships are being managed under Donnelly and Martin.

One Minister said last night: “We need to all get back on the same page, and quickly. This is Ireland vs the virus. There is no time for other conflicts.”

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times