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covid inquiry

Nolan awaiting Covid inquiry terms of reference before saying he will be engaging with it

Professor Philip Nolan says he does not know if he still has all his text messages from the pandemic.

ONE OF IRELAND’S leading public health figures during the Covid-19 pandemic has said he does not know if he still has all his text messages from the time.

Professor Philip Nolan, the former chair of the the Government’s virus modelling unit, made the admission after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he expects the inquiry to get “well underway” this year.

Varadkar said a memo on the terms of reference for the Covid-19 inquiry is to be brought to Cabinet in “the next couple of weeks”.

In the UK, the inquiry has focused on disagreements between politicians and health officials during that time, with much of the spotlight on back-and-forth exchanges that played out over text messages.

However, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has previously said he does not expect the Irish inquiry to be similar to that which has played out in the UK.

Speaking to reporters in Washington DC, Varadkar that it would be “tricky” to find five people to sit on the evaluation panel who, ideally, had no involvement in managing the pandemic or had not expressed prejudicial views.

“But we are determined to do it. Other countries had their evaluations and inquiries, we should have one too.

“And it is intended that there will be a public element to it. So that will allow people to tell their story and recap their lived experience and that’s an important part of it.”

He said the terms of reference were due to be ready a while ago, but said there was a call for more consultation with organisations. 

The inquiry would look at the State’s handling of the pandemic, which is expected to include the role of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET)

Prof Nolan, who was chair of NPHET’s Modelling Advisory Group, said it is important that lessons are learned from the inquiry as he believes another pandemic is “inevitable” in coming decades.

However, he said he would need to see the terms of reference to know how or if he would be engaging with the inquiry.

Asked if he had kept all his WhatsApp messages from throughout the pandemic which may useful to an inquiry, Prof Nolan said:

“I don’t know to be honest with you, it’s quite some time ago.”

Prof Nolan said he hoped the Irish inquiry would be different to the “adversarial or judicial” approach taken in the UK.

When asked about what he thinks NPHET did well and what he wished they had done better, Prof Nolan said:

“If there was one thing that we could have responded on quicker – masks would be a good example.

“You know, we perhaps moved too slowly to encourage people to wear masks.”

He added: “I’d be more willing to take low risk decisions, even though they might not be fully justified by the evidence – to say: ‘Well, it’s not going to do any harm so why don’t we give it a try’.”

He also said there were “occasions” where communication on modelling was not put across well.

During the pandemic, Nolan’s tweet comparing antigen tests to snake oil was an described as an “unhelpful comment” by Donnelly. 

Responding to a tweet by supermarket chain Lidl, which was advertising the sale of its new antigen tests alongside barbecue goods such as sausages, Nolan said: 

“Can I get some snake oil with that? It makes for a great salad dressing with a pinch of salt and something acerbic. Stay safe when socialising outdoors over the next few weeks. Small numbers, distance, masks. These antigen tests will not keep you safe.”

Nolan said he stood over his position on antigen tests, stating that originally people were saying if you test negative you can go to the pub, if you test positive, stay at home. 

As time moved on, he said they were used as a supplement to PCR test and were reliable enough to tell people if they had the virus or not, he added.

While he said it is a “controversial” thing to say, he still thinks NPHET was right at the time to say it was not safe with an unvaccinated population at the time of the Delta variant spreading very, very quickly to say that high-risk situations could be reopened if you test negative.

“I think that would have been the wrong thing to do. So we could argue about that, if I can put it that way,” he added. 

Prof Nolan, now director-general of Science Foundation Ireland, made the comments following an event in Washington, DC where Leo Varadkar presented the St Patrick’s Day Science Medal to computer-science expert Dr Eammonn Keogh and technology CEO John Harnett.

With reporting by Press Association

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