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Professor Martin Cormican in April 2021 Leah Farrell

Former NPHET member says mandatory Covid vaccines should have been considered

Professor Cormican also said that the intensity of lockdown measures meant that some vulnerable people were ‘effectively abandoned for months’.

A FORMER MEMBER of NPHET, Professor Martin Cormican, has stated that making vaccines for Covid-19 a legal obligation should have been considered and should become mandatory in the event of a future pandemic.

Cormican, a professor of bacteriology at the University of Galway, also questioned the benefits and drawbacks of the shutdown of indoor social activities during the pandemic.

In a paper for the Irish Society of Clinical Microbiology (ICSM), he wrote: “After the vaccine became available and was administered, those in Ireland who did not accept vaccination posed a disproportionate demand on healthcare services, notably on ICU services.”

“Although the evidence of benefit in proportion to risk was overwhelming, accepting vaccination was never a legal obligation.”

Cormican added that he believes it should be a legitimate public policy option to make vaccinations mandatory if “declining to accept vaccination has profound adverse consequences for society as a whole”.

“We should consider if it is possible to develop a social consensus and a legal framework around this not just for the next pandemic but also for other circumstances where the choice of a small proportion of people to decline vaccination imposes great burdens and costs on other citizens.”

His remarks were made in a closed meeting of the ICSM last October as part of a reflection on how Ireland handled the pandemic, and were not made public until recently.

Cormican was also critical of what he referred to as the “forceful” and “drastic” disruption of social interaction caused by pandemic related restrictions. 

“Why was it that our society was so unwilling to adopt an overt requirement to accept a safe effective vaccine when the evidence was compelling but we were ready to impose requirements for other measures that had profound impact on health and wellbeing and child development?” he questioned.

‘Unintended consequences’

“Did we adequately consider the short-term and long-term unintended consequences for health and wellbeing of prohibitions that disrupted established patterns of social and economic activity for a very long period of time?”

Cormican added that “children from areas of deprivation and those with special needs and their families were effectively abandoned for months.”

“For many of them the harm will continue for years and decades if not for life.”

He continued that increased antisocial behaviour in some areas of Dublin led him to wonder “how many of them might have been on a different life path, if the structure of their lives had been not been broken for months by lack of access to education”. 

Mask wearing

Cormican noted that many of his objections to certain measures were voiced in NPHET meetings, saying: “I share in the responsibility for the shortcomings either because I did not make the argument or because I failed to persuade”.

One measure he opposed was the mask mandate, telling the Sunday Independent that he believes there was a lack of quality research on some of the reasoning behind mask wearing.

“We didn’t take it as far as they did in some countries where you had to wear a mask simply walking down an empty street, which made no sense at all,” he said.

“But the thing was, once people started mixing, mask use made little or no material difference. Infection prevention control is not a theoretical thing, it is very practical, and anyone involved in it knows that people don’t wear masks properly.”

“Instead, we had a situation where people treated masks like a rabbit’s foot and they felt protected and it distracted them from the things that really mattered.”

Cormican also commended the fact that services such as healthcare, security and food supplies were maintained throughout the pandemic and said that the vaccination programme was “a phenomenal success”.

“Amongst the most fundamental things that helped Ireland was that, most people have a decent education and a good deal of trust in public institutions and in healthcare professionals,” he said.

Cormican also praised frontline healthcare workers but noted that he had heard accounts of staff not giving treatment to people with Covid because they were afraid of contracting the virus.

“I have also heard accounts of health and social care workers imposing inhumane restrictions on people in the name of infection prevention and control. In many cases I expect the problems were related to very understandable fear for themselves, their families or for other clients,” he stated.

He added that more effort should have been made to prepare frontline workers for the psychological stress that the pandemic would place on them.

Cormican added that he believed the daily reporting of Covid cases generated anxiety in the public and should have been changed to happen weekly much earlier than they were.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin stated today that lessons need to be learned in terms of how to handle pandemics.

“The global macro figures show that Ireland did well in terms of limiting the number of deaths although a lot of people suffered significantly, many families did, our health service came under enormous stress,” he told the RTÉ.

“But that said, given the nature of what is a once-in-100-years event we should evaluate all aspects of the management and handling of the pandemic.”

“Last year the health minister set up a public health team to analyze it from a public health perspective and that will feed into a wider evaluation of how Ireland did during the pandemic,” Martin said.

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