Pandemic taught us how science feeds into ‘messier’ political system - Nolan

‘Careful reflection’ on new Covid-19 book will help to learn lessons, says Nphet modeller

One of the biggest lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic is how the formal processes of science and medicine feed into the “much messier system” of politics and policy.

This was the view of Prof Philip Nolan, who chaired the group that modelled the trajectory of the virus for the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) that advised the Government.

Speaking to The Irish Times at the launch of Pandemonium: Power, Politics and Ireland’s Pandemic, the new book by Irish Times political reporter Jack Horgan-Jones and Irish Independent political correspondent Hugh O’Connell, Prof Nolan praised the work as “really good journalism” .

He described the book as “really well researched” and “a good document of what happened”.


“Careful reflection on it is going to be useful,” he said.

Prof Nolan, now director general of Science Foundation Ireland, said the most important thing to learn from the pandemic was understanding communications and human behaviour "in a political and sociological context."

“It is not simply a question of what’s the public health advice. It is a question of what is the Government and the people going to do with the public health advice,” he said

In a speech to a packed gathering at the launch of the book in Dublin, Horgan-Jones said the pandemic was “all encompassing… in a way that previous crises just weren’t.”

“There wasn’t a life in the country that was unaffected and it was the most remarkable story that we have ever covered, perhaps the most remarkable story that we will ever cover,” he said.

He said the authors committed themselves to making their book "the best obtainable version of the truth; to tell the story in as much detail as possible of an extraordinary time in Ireland. "

O’Connell said journalism has been “absolutely essential” since the foundation of the State and that had been especially so over the last two years during the pandemic.

Every single citizen was affected by Covid-19, he said, and the job of the authors was “to report on those making decisions that dictated our lives.”

“There’s been a lot of debate about leaks over that time, but leaks were ultimately essential to telling the story of what really happened in Ireland over the last few years,” he said.

“That’s why it’s important because this is about how it affects you and how the pandemic affected you.”

Mr Horgan-Jones said their obsession with sourcing accurate information went so far as checking what an original source described as "the silk curtains" in the home of top civil servant Robert Watt that formed the backdrop for his Zoom calls for critical Covid-related meetings.

Not content with double sourcing the detail on the curtains, the authors asked Tánaiste Leo Varadkar for confirmation during an interview, eliciting what Mr Horgan-Jones said was an "unforgettable description" from the Fine Gael leader: "Like something from a boudoir."

Among politicians in attendance at the launch at Hodges Figgis bookshop were Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shortall and Labour TDs Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and Ged Nash.

Fine Gael TD John Paul Phelan said this week's revelations from the book - that HSE chief executive Paul Reid considered Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly "not respectful" at first - were "extraordinary comments" and "unprecedented."

He said he was looking forward to reading the book in full as Nphet “came out of nowhere to become the dominant player for two years” and the politics of Nphet “has always fascinated me.”

The pandemic has taught the political system significant lessons on what it could do, he said.

“We have never dealt with anything like this before. I think the political class as well as the medical experts have all learned from the last two years,” he said.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times