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Monday 11 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C

Factfind: Did the government actually follow NPHET's advice heading into December?

This week, Health Mininister Stephen Donnelly denied the government had gone against public health advice.

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AS COVID-19 HAS surged to alarming heights in Ireland, the government has continued to defend the decisions it made around relaxing restrictions in December. 

This week, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said that the government did not go against public health advice when it announced measures in late November that took effect from December.

His comments echoed fellow Cabinet members who have said the government’s decision to re-open hospitality settings, in particular, did not play the most significant role in the thousands of new cases now being confirmed every day. 

For the purposes of this factfind, we’re going to look at what the health minister said in an interview this week about this topic, alongside some other recent comments from senior government leaders.

This factfind will not make any conclusions on whether the right decisions were made, or the impact that different decisions would have had.

However, in the context of a surge that has seen Ireland achieve the unenviable accomplishment of being rated the worst in the world in terms of daily new cases, the government has repeatedly said that it followed NPHET advice in taking its decisions.

Firstly, we’ll look at exactly what measures the government brought in for the last month of 2020. 

Then, we’ll see what Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said in an interview with Virgin Media this week. 

Next, we’re going to take a look at what exactly NPHET recommended and what measures the government then introduced, and compare it with what government leaders and ministers have said. 

Government’s decision

On 27 November, Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced that the country would be moving to Level Three in December. 

Under the measures, shops, restaurants, gyms and some pubs were permitted to re-open. Museums, galleries and libraries could also open along with hairdressers.

Attendance at religious services was also permitted, along with the opening of all forms of retail. 

For the purposes of this factfind, we’re looking at the following two points that ministers have been frequently challenged upon in recent weeks. 

From Friday 4 December, restaurants and pubs with a kitchen on-site were permitted to reopen, but with additional restrictions than before. Hotels were also able to open to indoor diners. 

From Friday 18 December, restrictions on household visits were to be lifted to allow two households to visit a third. Inter-county travel was also set to be permitted from this date, until 6 January.

Prior to this, all hospitality was closed (with the exception of takeaway and delivery) while household visits were not permitted. 

The Taoiseach said that at that stage in late November, there had been a “massive national effort” to push back the disease.

On that same day – 27 November – 243 cases of the virus were confirmed in the country,  bringing the total to 71,942. At the time of writing, there have now been 155,591 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland. 

Stephen Donnelly

This week, Minister Stephen Donnelly conducted an interview with Virgin Media News in the Department of Health.

During the interview, he was pressed on why the sudden, sharp surge began in December.

Donnelly said: “There were a lot of things happening in December, which have led to the very serious rise. There was a lot of socialisation, no doubt about it. If you look at the biggest days in terms of swabbing, they are four days after Christmas Day and four days after New Year’s Eve. 

“So we know there was a lot of socialisation going on both when hospitality was open but also based on New Year’s Eve and Christmas when hospitality was closed.”

Interviewer Richard Chambers asked Donnelly if the government takes some responsibility for that, in terms of the increased socialisation. 

The minister said there were various causes for the surge and that the UK variant acted as an “accelerant”, along with travel between the UK and Ireland at Christmas time. 

He said it was important now to stick with the public health measures.

Chambers put it to Donnelly again and asked if the government accepted responsibility for the current situation.

Here’s how the exchange went: 

Donnelly: “The government has been following public health advice from day one.”

Chambers: “It went against public health advice.”

Donnelly: “No, it didn’t.”

Chambers: “In what way did it follow health advice if NPHET said don’t open pubs and restaurants at the same time as allowing household visits and the government did it anyway?”

Donnelly: “So the advice was a six-week Level Five period for October-November. That was brought into play. The advice then was to move out of that – which we did – and the advice was to relax things around the Christmas period.

“And then when we saw the UK variant, when we saw the cases going up, NPHET’s advice was to move to Level [Five] on St Stephen’s Day. The government moved ahead of that in consultation with the chief medical officer, and it was on the Friday before we moved to Level Five [that] the UK variant became the big issue and concerns were raised. Within a few hours of the chief medical officer having advised me that the government should move to Level Five, the Covid subcommittee had met, and we made a recommendation the very next day to cabinet which was accepted to move to Level Five.

You know, there has been some focus on the fact that NPHET said open up households but close hospitality and the government said no, we’ll open hospitality but close down households. To be honest, there was no way of knowing which of those would have led to more or less spread. In the main areas Level Five, Level Three, going back to Level Five and going beyond Level Five, government and NPHET and government and the CMO have been very, very closely aligned and we will remain so.”

Defending government decisions

In recent weeks, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have been among members of the government defending their decisions around the NPHET advice given at the end of November. 

Broadly speaking, they’ve said they’ve largely followed public health advice from the start of this pandemic but as a government also have to make decisions around that advice. 

On Sunday 3 January, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was interviewed on RTÉ’s This Week programme.

Interviewer Justin McCarthy quoted directly from NPHET’s letter on the 26th of November that “we do not have the flexibility to enable a resumption of hospitality in restaurants and bars, if we are to enable an easing of the current prohibition on mixing between households“.

McCarthy put it to Varadkar that it’s “pretty clear” that the advice was not to open the hospitality sector and allow household visits at the same time. 

Varadkar replied: “ You’re correct in one part to say the NPHET advice that we should not open hospitality. And we did. On the other hand, NPHET did advise that we should allow and could allow household visits to occur and household gatherings to occur from 2 December.

“And we decided against that. We didn’t allow that until the 18th of December. So if we followed that advice to the letter, yes we would not have had groups of six gathering in thousands of restaurants around the country. But we would have had groups of six and more gathering in two million kitchens and two million living rooms around the country so would we be in a better or worse situation now? I can’t answer that definitively. No one can.”

On 23 December, the Taoiseach was interviewed on Today with Claire Byrne.

When pressed by Byrne on the decision to re-open, Micheál Martin pointed to NPHET’s advice on household visits which the government didn’t follow as showing a more “conservative” approach.

Martin said: “We took a more conservative view on households where we had no visits to households, up to the 18th of December. And we did open hospitality to a limited extent.” Byrne interjected, saying: “Against their advice”. 

The Taoiseach said that there were numerous factors in play, including the new variant from the UK, driving the surge in cases. 

So what was NPHET’s advice then?

In a letter to the health minister on 26 November, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan laid out NPHET’s recommendations after six weeks of Level 5 measures. 

He said: “In broad terms, NPHET advises the application of enhanced Level 3 measures for an eight-week period from the 2 December.”

The letter recommended a further easing of some measures for two weeks from 21 December to 3 January in “recognition of the societal importance of the upcoming holiday period”. This included a relaxation of domestic travel restrictions, visits to private homes and long-term residential care facilities and religious services.

On household visits, it said: “Visits to private homes should be allowed from one other household to a maximum of six visitors from 2 December.

Visits to private homes of up to a maximum of six visitors from three other households should be allowed for the two-week period [from 21 December to 3 January].

On hospitality, NPHET said that settings such as bars and restaurants had been associated with “super-spreading events” both in Ireland and internationally.

“The NPHET therefore recommends that the hospitality sector remain closed (with the exception of takeaway and delivery) over the eight-week period.

Of note, if some element of hospitality is retained, the NPHET is of the view that the recommended easing of measures with regard to household mixing over the two-week festive period as set out above could not also take place.

In effect, NPHET said that if hospitality settings were being re-opened, then household mixing should not also take place. 

In any event, that is what happened as gastropubs and restaurants were permitted to re-open on 4 December and household mixing was allowed from 18 December.

However, this didn’t all go to plan as daily case numbers quadrupled in the space of a week from 14 December onwards.

The subsequent rapid spread of the virus and further NPHET advice caused the government to implement tougher and harsher restrictions, which were announced during Christmas week. Gastropubs and restaurants, having been open for three weeks, closed their doors again on Christmas Eve.

In the conclusion of his letter, Dr Holohan said: “Ireland is in a very precarious position where we are vulnerable to a sudden sharp increase in incidence. The advice of the NPHET is that we do not have the flexibility to enable resumption of hospitality in restaurants and bars if we are to enable an easing of the current prohibition on mixing between households while protecting the core objectives of protecting public health and those who are most vulnerable, and the ongoing provision of essential health and social care, education and child care services.”


Firstly, it is true to say that the government followed much of NPHET’s advice in moving the country from Level 5 to Level 3 at the start of December.

But there was an important divergence. 

Let’s take Donnelly’s comments to Virgin Media News again.

Donnelly: “The government has been following public health advice from day one.”

Chambers: “It went against public health advice.”

Donnelly: “No, it didn’t.”

NPHET advised the government not to re-open hospitality settings in a letter on 26 November. The government announced the following day that restaurants and gastropubs would re-open and they did so on 4 December

Donnelly references this later on in the exchange, and says there’s no way of knowing which of those (re-opening hospitality or allowing household visits earlier) would’ve led to more spread.

Despite that, Dr Holohan did tell the minister that household visits shouldn’t be permitted over Christmas if hospitality was permitted to re-open.

In the event, the government allowed both to happen. It allowed some hospitality settings to re-open on 4 December and permitted household mixing from 18 December. 

This was not in accordance with NPHET advice. 

NPHET said that the plan to relax limits on household visits further for the two weeks either side of Christmas should not go ahead if hospitality was permitted to re-open.

Micheál Martin said the government was “more conservative” in terms of household visits. While it, indeed, did not permit household visits from 2 December as NPHET advised, it did open hospitality against NPHET’s advice in that same week.

In summary, the government did not follow NPHET’s advice to the letter when it came to the transition from Level 5 to Level 3 in December.

The government re-opened hospitality when the advice was not to. NPHET warned that household visits should not be recommended over the Christmas period if hospitality was also permitted to re-open.

In his letter, Dr Holohan warned that Ireland was vulnerable to a sudden sharp increase in incidence of the disease.’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here