Ireland’s Covid-19 policies can’t survive another comms catastrophe

28 Sep 2020

Image: © CurvaBezier/

The Government needs to engage the public with effective science communication in order to get compliance back on track following its complete Covid-19 communication breakdown, writes Elaine Burke.

At 430, yesterday saw the largest number of new coronavirus cases reported in a day in Ireland since late April. Acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn has said that there is no room for complacency with Covid-19 and that the current situation will continue to deteriorate without effective action – but it remains to be seen if that message will make it up the channels of power.

Globally, we are fast approaching the grim milestone of 1m deaths from Covid-19. The executive director of health emergencies at the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged governments around the world to grasp the nettle and face up to what’s necessary to avoid the very real possibility of 2m deaths.

“Are we prepared to do what it takes to avoid that number?” Dr Mike Ryan said to reporters at WHO headquarters in Geneva last week. “Unless we do it all, the number you speak about is not only imaginable but, unfortunately and sadly, very likely.”

What it takes, Ryan has explained, is effective practices of testing and tracing, quarantining and social distancing. And the public health emergencies expert challenged governments seeing a recent uptick in cases to assess if they have truly done enough to avoid lockdowns. “Lockdowns are almost a last resort – and to think that we’re back in last-resort territory in September, that’s a pretty sobering thought,” he said.

‘The mixed messaging from Government, public bodies and the media is causing a complete communication breakdown at great risk to public health’

If the policymakers in Ireland paid any attention to public sentiment, they would know that their recent economy-led approach to Covid-19 guidance has been fuel for ridicule. The public are not completely ignorant to the science behind the virus and are well aware that a €9 meal doesn’t magically render it impotent.

It doesn’t help that, as in the case of the much-maligned €9 magic meal, guidelines from Fáilte Ireland have been mixed up with recommendations from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) as expert public health guidance. It doesn’t help that several public figures were found to be wildly flouting Covid-19 rules at a golf society event in Galway, and that one man in particular made a very public display of consistently misinterpreting the rules to suit himself. It doesn’t help that in the age of reporting everything with urgent immediacy we are inundated with every proposed restriction before any official rules are even announced.

And it doesn’t help that this sense of there being different rules for different sectors of society became so blatant amid the Government’s decision to release a set of countrywide guidelines that it was quickly decided some of these rules would not be applicable to Dublin.

Mixed messaging

The mixed messaging from Government, public bodies and the media is causing a complete communication breakdown at great risk to public health. Some have begun taking up the assumption that the public is fatigued by Covid-19 restrictions, to the detriment of compliance. I’d argue that what I’ve witnessed is a very Covid-conscious public growing weary of mangled public health messaging.

Before the Dublin restrictions were finally called, we were mired in a week-long morass of confusion. The Government introduced a levels system that it instantly began editing on the fly. And even if you tried to be guided by these levels, the detail on what each set of restrictions meant was initially completely absent.

The result of this mixed messaging coming from the top is that others have taken the lead on massaging rules to suit themselves. Despite all the progress made with dramatic digital transformation enabling a work from home revolution earlier this year, some companies have taken up their own definition of what is ‘essential’ and are calling employees back to the workplace. This means back to communal spaces, lunchtime queues and rush-hour public transport.

Don’t sideline the science

Frustration has reigned because of guidance issued paternalistically and, seemingly, without rational explanation. Yet there are reasonable science-backed explanations for NPHET’s advice.

While the Government was bickering with the Vintners Association and pub owners about what decision was being made, Maynooth University president Prof Philip Nolan was left to explain the why via a Twitter thread.

It was evident to Nolan and many others that there was a gap of understanding in how reported increases in figures were related to the required closure of social spaces. If there was a coordinated effort to properly communicate the science behind this decision-making instead of perpetual fighting over who will have to draw the short straw, the public may well have been onside.

The reason shouldn’t follow the rules, it should lead them. The Government shouldn’t need a PR agency to realise this.

Science communication and public engagement experts are plentiful in Ireland, and their ability to bring the public along with science should be engaged fully, not sidelined to social media.

Covid-19 figures are rising, not just in Ireland but around the world. It’s going to take quick, decisive and drastic action to see that turn around, and that’s not something that this Government has shown itself capable of.

Going back to Dr Mike Ryan’s challenge: are we prepared to do what it takes? If what it takes is hard to swallow, it will take strength in science communication to ensure the public is informed and feels empowered to take effective individual action against this virus.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.