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Public health team's notes and letters on recommended restrictions will be published, says minister

Questions have been raised this week about how decisions are being made as Ireland responds to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Health Minister Simon Harris has said letters sent between himself, NPHET and the HSE will be published.
Health Minister Simon Harris has said letters sent between himself, NPHET and the HSE will be published.

HEALTH MINISTER SIMON Harris has said the notes from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and letters of recommendations sent from the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohon should be published. 

Questions have been raised this week about how decisions are being made as Ireland responds to the Covid-19 pandemic – and about who exactly is behind the steering wheel.

Both Labour’s Alan Kelly and Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin challenged the Taoiseach in the Dáil, seeking clarity on a number areas relating to the NPHET. 

NPHET, chaired by Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, was convened at the end of January this year to coordinate the country’s response to what would later become a global crisis. 

Members of that team are now front and centre, guiding the government in its actions and driving the public messaging around Covid-19. 

It was on the recommendation of this group of officials that the government on 27 March implemented the measures currently in place, restricting movement, introducing cocooning for over 70s and directing the closure of non-essential shops and services. And on 11 April, NPHET also recommended an extension of these measures to 5 May. 

Kelly also questioned why the notes of minutes of meetings are no longer being published on the government’s portal – the last to be published were minutes from 11 April, though the team has met at least twice a week since then. 

Correspondence about the crisis

He told TheJournal.ie today that NPHET “have been doing a good job and everyone should support them and the Government during these difficult and unprecedented times”.

“However we need see the formulas by which all decisions are being made to ensure democratic accountability. We need to see how people were appointed to NPHET, how decisions are recorded, ask why there are no minutes, what the 11 sub groups are doing and how NPHET reports to Government.

“We also need to see all correspondence between the HSE and the Department of Health regarding this crisis and find out why they have concerns regarding NPHET’s actions?” he said. 

“Why won’t the Department publish these? This is very worrying. We’ve had enough non-disclosure in the past so we need the Government to be upfront and transparent now. The critical work of NPHET is there to advise the Government. The Government must take that advice and ultimately make the decisions on behave of the people who elected them,” added Kelly. 

When asked about the issues today, Harris said: 

I think deputy Kelly’s right. People will want to look back and know, ‘how did we arrive at that decision’? You know, I get that… So yes, the notes of all the NPHET meetings were being published up to the end of March, and they need to be published again. I’m not sure if it’s just a kind of workload issue that they weren’t uploaded. So they will be and they should continue to be uploaded.

Published

Harris said the letters that are issued from NPHET to himself and the HSE boss Paul Reid should be also be published.

The minister said it is right and proper that he is held accountable in the Dáil, and that the chief medical officer faces questions on a daily basis also.

It was also reported today in The Irish Times that the HSE had raised concerns about its capacity to achieve the level of ramped-up testing announced by Holohan in recent weeks.

When asked about the process by which the decision to increase capacity had come about, Harris said he had never seen such a level of collaboration between those working in health.

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He said there was no tension between NPHET and the HSE in relation to the issue.

He said senior representatives from the HSE are on NPHET, stating that the team was making decisions transparently. He said decisions are being made “in real time”.

There was no time to “dilly dally”, he said, or to “ponder, debate or send papers back and forth”.

Time costs lives and NPHET was making recommendations on the best advice available, he added. 

NPHET’s recommendations can be challenging and can take time to put into operation, explained the minister. 

“NPHET is not a Department of Health body that tells other people what to do. I think there might be a misunderstanding on this, stating that at a time of public emergency when “they’re trying to save our lives and keep us safe, it pulls together expertise and make recommendations.”

“When they make recommendations, there’s a body of work to do to make sure those recommendations can be turned into reality, can be operationalised. And there’s a back and forth that you’d expect between officials on the HSE,” he said

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