Comment: Nphet and the government need to address their communication failings

Time and again, poor communication between health officials and policy makers has resulted in the public being blindsided

2nd July, 2021
Comment: Nphet and the government need to address their communication failings
‘Nphet and the government continue to fail at communications. This is having a crushing effect on society, which risks derailing our collective response to Covid-19.’ Picture: Rollingnews.ie

Last Tuesday, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) issued a letter to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly warning that the Delta Covid-19 variant was set to cause a “significant” fourth wave that could kill more than 2,000 people.

Dr Tony Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer, presented five grim modelling projections for the coming months, as well as a number of recommendations for the planned reopening of society.

It was Nphet’s opinion that indoor dining, which had been due to reopen next week, should only be permitted for those who have been fully protected by vaccination or have had a Covid-19 infection in the previous nine months.

The letter made it to the papers. Naturally, the news came as a bombshell to the public, anxious about another wave of infections, and especially to the embattled hospitality sector. Meanwhile, the government was only beginning to consider Nphet’s recommendations.

It was Groundhog Day, a repeat of that Sunday last October when we, at the same time as our politicians, learned of similar crushing Nphet advice – a return to level 5 restrictions – through media. At the time, Tanaiste Leo Varadkar described Nphet’s recommendations as “not thought through”.

It is clear that lessons from previous communications missteps have not been learned.

Nphet and the government are still not joined up

Nphet and the government continue to fail at communications. This is having a crushing effect on society, which risks derailing our collective response to Covid-19.

The government is continually surprised by Nphet’s recommendations. It is forced to scramble to review the data, deliberate and make decisions under pressure.

Businesses, too, are repeatedly blindsided by inconsistent and mixed messaging, impractical plans, and no clarity or certainty. Many, particularly those in hospitality, remain in limbo, unsure of how and when their businesses can open, with costly implications for staff and stock.

From a broader public perspective, disjointed communications undermine confidence in the reopening of society just when we need to reassure workers and consumers that it is safe to leave the home and begin resuming normal life. Without a clear message, we merely draw out economic and psychological harm.

This week’s surprise announcement came as tensions mounted between Nphet and the government over the use of rapid antigen tests. Nphet doubts their usefulness, but Minister Donnelly has decided to bypass Nphet and establish a new expert group to fast-track their rollout. Clearly the current relationship cannot continue without reform.

Take the lessons once and for all

If we are to face another wave with a prevalent Delta variant, we need to have confidence in the ability of Nphet and the government to guide us through the remainder of the pandemic.

This can only happen when both join up their communications, advancing one message – comprised of the public health data, Nphet’s advice and the government’s decision – at one time.

Nphet needs to consider hearts and minds and the wider social and political impacts of their recommendations. Their job is to offer public health advice based on the data. It is the job of government to decide if, how and when that advice is heeded and implemented. Both parties must meet, review the case data, advise, and together agree on a way forward that meets both public health requirements and the needs of society.

The government must also chair the weekly press briefings: Nphet presents the data, and our ministers tell us what that data means and its implications for society.

In this way, one message and one plan are put forward cohesively. It would avoid speculation and uncertainty and unite us in our collective response to Covid and its variants.

Sarah Regan is a client director at communications consultancy 360

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