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Jim O'Callaghan: 'There's a danger in a political system that blindly follows everything NPHET says'

Making the tough decisions in government during a pandemic is not easy, says O’Callaghan.

FIANNA FÁIL’S JIM O’Callaghan and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar agree on one thing – the government should focus on hospitalisations, ICU capacity and deaths rather than new cases when making decisions about Covid-19 restrictions.

In an interview with The Currency this week, Varadkar questioned if we are looking at the wrong numbers when making decisions, stating:

“What I see other countries doing – Belgium is the most recent example – is that they are no longer using case numbers to make their decisions on restrictions and on policy.

“They are looking at hospitalisations, ICU capacity and deaths. It is a job for us as politicians to say to the public health people that maybe we should be focusing on that.

“The objective was to make sure our health service did not get overwhelmed, not to lock down the country and the economy until there was no Covid at all. That is not realistic.”

This follows his comments last month, where he said we should not be obsessed with the daily case numbers, something he repeated again on RTÉ’s New Normal programme.

O’Callaghan – who some tip to be the next leader of Fianna Fáil – says he welcomes Varadkar’s recent comments. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Dublin Bay South TD said he had been making similar points over the last few months.

“I welcome that because I was saying this back in June and July. Yeah, I think we need to recognise why we went into lockdown because we’ve forgotten that.

“We saw the scenes in Northern Italy, and they terrified people, and it would have been appalling if people got this disease, about which we knew very little, came into hospital and they couldn’t get treatment. That would have been an appalling indictment on any country.

“And so we made the right decision to go into lockdown in order to flatten the curve. And we succeeded in that. I think if you look back at 15 April, there was 155 people in intensive care. In mid April, there was 881 people in hospital. We flattened the curve.”

O’Callaghan says the narrative has changed over recent weeks and months. 

“People and now eminent commentators in this are saying we need to crush the curve into the ground. Where did that come from? We’re not going to be able to do that, in my opinion, we’re not going to be able to crush the curve into the ground.”

Making the tough decisions in government during a pandemic is not easy, O’Callaghan acknowledges.

The Fianna Fáil TD was speaking before the National Public Health Emergency Team, (NPHET) referenced the increase in hospitalisations, raising concerns around the indicators of disease severity. 

The NPHET are doing the job they were established to do, said O’Callaghan, adding that politicians shouldn’t face a backlash when they decide against NPHET advice.

There shouldn’t be criticisms of government if it doesn’t “slavishly follow public health advice”. 

O’Callaghan says politicians are often criticised and told ‘just do what NPHET says’ when they question NPHET advice or query whether government should depart from it.

“People are going to die as a result of it, people will say, because you didn’t follow public health advice, these people died. I think that’s a reductionist argument. I think it’s not a fair argument. And I think no matter what step is taken there are risks, and there will be consequences.

“However, the danger is we just have a political system that blindly follows everything NPHET says, and that’s doing a disservice to NPHET as well – it’s elevating their power far too much.”

When asked if he believes the government is blindly following the advice, O’Callaghan said: 

“No I don’t think so. Micheál [Martin] is doing a good job as Taoiseach. I think it’s very difficult time at present, like it was much easier to be the Taoiseach closing down the country than reopening it, there is no doubt about it.”

He said opposition politicians and the media would be very critical of the government if it didn’t follow completely public health advice from NPHET.

“I think politicians need to take into account other factors and I believe Micheál and the government are doing that. I don’t believe they’re slavishly following the advice.”

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The pandemic is not like another political issue such as homelessness, poverty or unemployment, he said. There is little point in saying we are going to fight and beat it.

“We’re not, we can try and suppress it, but we’re not going to eliminate it in the short term.”

He has serious concerns about the impacts the restrictions and lockdown measures are having on society, and particularly on the mental health of young people.

He said he’d spoken to medical experts who are “alarmed” at the number of referrals of young people since March. This pandemic has had a huge impact on their lives, he said.

“Like it’s probably easier for people my age and older to deal with extraordinary events but I’m really worried about the impact of mental health on people living on their own.

While O’Callaghan said he supports Martin in his approach, there have been criticisms of the Taoiseach within Fianna Fáil in recent weeks. 

Sligo-Leitrim TD Marc MacSharry described the relationship Martin has with his party is one of a teacher and his students. 

Does O’Callaghan agree?

“I don’t regard Micheal Martin’s leadership as being similar to the leadership of a teacher over a classroom.”

Will O’Callaghan be the next leader of Fianna Fáil?

“I don’t know, that depends on whenever there is a vacancy – there’s no vacancy at present. And I think, you know, we’ve got to be careful we don’t start talking about leadership and issues like that because although it’s not the intention of anyone that is talking about leadership, the effect of it is that it does undermine the current leader’s position and I don’t want to do that.”

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