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Bad news, delivered badly? Taoiseach defends government communications, says the message is clear

When there is no fuel left in the tank, communication is key.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin says he's been clear with the public since January.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin says he's been clear with the public since January.
Image: Julien Behal

A MAJOR SURVEY published yesterday found that Irish people are angrier and more frustrated right now than at any stage of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

While this might not be news to most of us, it appears to have fallen on deaf ears in the government. 

The confusion in the last few days about how the government plans to handle the next phase of the pandemic was not just about mixed messages, but also about plain old bad communication. 

Essentially, delivering bad news, badly.

Speaking to reporters last night, Taoiseach Micheál Martin was asked if the government had a problem with communicating a clear plan.

“No, the message is the clearest message of all: we all have to be careful with the virus, especially with the new variant which is more dangerous and does more damage to people. The basic message is we have to be careful going forward. Eventually we will open the schools and we will be able to do more week after week.”

Was this a head in the sand approach? Because there’s no denying the numerous  (avoidable) bumps for government communications in recent days. 

It started first thing on Monday morning last week, with the cock-up of not inviting certain media outlets to a briefing with the Health Minister Stephen Donnelly. It was only solved when a senior reporter from RTÉ refused to cover the event unless all media were allowed in. 

Then there was a news of the mass vaccination centres later that day. What could have been a big good news story for government was instead publicised by press release, with no press conference, and before some hotels had even been informed they were on the list. 

Then there was the confusion about school restart dates throughout the week.

When asked about that yesterday evening, Martin said: ”We have a responsibility to speak to the media, we have to speak to the media. We have a responsibility to speak to the Oireachtas. I don’t think there’s any way around that. And we have to be honest, too, in speaking to the media.”

Fast forward to the weekly sub-Cabinet meeting last Thursday, where information leaked out that ministers were told that Level 5 wasn’t going away any time soon.

A big blow for people to hear about on Twitter.

Members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) said any unwinding should be gradual, staggered, and that it wants to monitor each chess move for what impact it might have. 

On Friday, the Irish Daily Mirror published an interview with Taoiseach Micheál Martin in which he said that “until the end of April you can look at significant restrictions”. Another big blow to the public.

Martin claims that he said “into April”, rather than “the end of April” (even though a record of the interview shows that he did in fact say “the end of April”) and says that there will be a review of the situation after Easter (4 April). 

While the idea of a nine-week lockdown at this stage came as a shock to many people, it is something the Taoiseach maintains he has been flagging since January.

“When you look at what I have said in the Dáil since January onwards, I’ve had one message: that we will be careful and slow,” Martin told reporters last night. 

“I have been very clear in the Dáil that difficult times are ahead of us. On the other hand, vaccines give us hope and the ability to conquer the virus.”

To be fair, on 23 January, Martin said people should expect restrictions to be in place for the first six months of the year. On 11 February, he said restrictions will be in place until at least Easter. 

So, yes. The message from government since the beginning of the year has been ‘we are not getting out of this anytime soon’.

It has been “well trailed”, as he pointed out last week. But government’s error is it has failed to read the mood of the nation as the months ticked on.

It has also failed to remember that not everyone hangs on to every word of the Taoiseach, or tunes into Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil each day that it’s on, or listens to RTÉ daily, or, in fact, engages in any news anymore given how grim it has become. 

The problem is that when people heard those stark messages in January and February, the cases were high, and hospitals were in crisis. The shoulders were to the wheel.

We’re now weeks into this. 

Until last night, the Taoiseach has not addressed the public since 26 January when he announced the extension of Level 5 lockdown.

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At the time, the Christmas comedown had well and truly kicked in. Even when asked by TheJournal.ie if the Taoiseach had any good news, none was forthcoming.

Instead it has been dribs and drabs of bad news being leaked out over the last number of weeks, and it just won’t cut it for people this time around. There’s no fuel left in the tank. 

Last night was the Taoiseach’s opportunity to inject some hope into people. Instead, it’s at least another six weeks of the same. 

But how do some of his government colleagues think it will be received? 

One said the plan has to work as the government doesn’t want, nor can it entertain, another lockdown. “It will have to work, because it has to,” they said.

Another was not so optimistic, stating that the message yesterday from the Taoiseach was “we have no plan, but stick with it, and we’ll get through it, some day”.

When asked by this publication last week if the government “had lost the room”, the Taoiseach replied no, stating that people were struggling to deal with the news that easing would be slow. 

But efforts are waining. One-third of the population is not staying within 10km of home, despite 5km limitations, new research has revealed.

Senior sources in government have said that the level of anger is palpable. They know that many are tapping out, saying they are checking out of this, and not willing to adhere to restrictions. 

The answer? One core message from government, for as many people as possible to stick to it, and for a glimmer of hope to be given to people. Some leadership. And if government leaders don’t know the answer to something, say so.

If government continues to fail to read the room, this new plan will hardly be worth the paper it’s written on. 

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