Covid-19 in Ireland: Pandemonium | Cassandra Voices

Covid-19 in Ireland: Pandemonium


Robert Fisk wrote: ‘we journalists try – or should try – to be the first impartial witnesses of history. If we have any reason for our existence, the least must be our ability to report history as it happens so that no one can say: “We didn’t know, no one told us.”[i]

To be an “impartial witness” is, of course, impossible, as Fisk concedes, but this should not deter journalists from striving for objectivity. Inevitably, reporting on “history as it happens” involves choices as to what information is recorded in the annals of daily newspapers, and decisions over whose account becomes canonical. What is left out is often as important as what is included.

Since independence Irish journalism has often failed to interrogate the structures of power and privilege. Thus, in his seminal Ireland 1912-1985, J. J. Lee notes ‘the intellectual poverty of Irish journalism … [and]the lack of public demand for serious analysis.’[ii]

An older generation are sometimes heard to say, “we didn’t know, no one told us”, whether concerning the treatment of children in religious institutions, or corruption in the planning process. We may be revisiting a tendency to sugar-coat our reality in the Irish media’s broadly self-congratulatory response to Covid-19.

Writing a first draft of history, in Pandemonium: Power, Politics and Ireland’s Pandemic Jack Horgan-Jones and Hugh O’Connell, Irish Times and Irish Independent journalists respectively, offer an insider account of truly unprecedented times. The book recalls how the spectre of a devastating pandemic gives way to a realisation that democracy and the rule of law were undermined amidst extraordinary rules that deliberately orchestrated social atomisation, with unpredictable consequences. But it avoids addressing whether we were duped into an apparently popular commitment to lockdowns.

Anyone governing Ireland throughout the period of the pandemic would naturally wish for their choices to be vindicated, especially the approach of permitting civil servants and technocrats to make many, if not most, difficult decisions; while riding roughshod over fundamental rights to associate, travel and conduct business freely, seemingly with popular consent, however manufactured.

As an early assessment, drawing on interviews with many key players, Pandemonium arguably suffers from its proximity to sources. After all, access is only granted to the chosen few. A reputation for being ‘difficult’ is not a recipe for a successful career in mainstream Irish journalism. This perhaps accounts for Pandemonium’s generally muted and conditional criticism.

Nevertheless, the book brings to light important information, including an unpublished report cataloguing the catastrophe that ensued in many care homes in the early months of 2020.

To explain the disproportionate – at times self-harming – Irish response to the pandemic a future historian might explore a Catholic inheritance conditioning acceptance of the Original Sin of asymptomatic spread; the Holy Water of hand sanitisers; the Heresy of the unvaccinated; and the Benediction of (repeated) vaccination. Our future historian, or anthropologist, might also note the Obscurantism of a dominant Hierarchy that denied the ‘snake oil’ of antigen testing; the extreme unlikelihood of outdoor transmission, and immunity conferred by natural infection.

“The big calls”

The authors maintain that ‘The majority of the big calls were correct.’ This judgment is made, notwithstanding the decision, ‘to clear out hospitals to prepare for a surge in admissions by decanting large numbers of elderly and vulnerable patients into nursing homes’. It should also be noted that CMO Tony Holohan ordered care homes to re-open to visitors in March, 2020. These policies contributed to Ireland suffering the second highest proportion of care home deaths in the world during the first wave.

To arrive at a broadly positive assessment the main metric the authors use is comparative mortality attributed to Covid-19. However, besides serious questions over how mortality from Covid-19 has been assessed globally – dying ‘from’ or ‘with’ – this ignores how with Europe’s youngest population Ireland ought to have been the least susceptible to mortality from the disease.

As a Nature article put it in August, 2020: ‘For every 1,000 people infected with the coronavirus who are under the age of 50, almost none will die.’ Indeed, from March to June, 2020, 96% of additional deaths related to Covid-19 in Europe occurred in patients aged older than 70 years.

Europe’s youngest population were forced to contend with some of the most draconian laws in the world. An Author’s Note contains analysis of Oxford University’s stringency data which shows among comparator countries in the EU27 and UK that Ireland had the most restrictive regime for 121 out of 685 days, and was joint fourth overall behind Italy, Greece and Germany. Based on other criteria, the regime may have been even harsher.

Initially, the old were to be sacrificed for the sake of the young, but ultimately it would be the young who would be compelled to put their lives on hold for the sake of the old. Some will never recover. The disgrace is that no serious cost-benefit analyses were conducted during what the authors accurately characterise as enduring pandemonium.

The decision to empty hospitals in March, 2020 may have been medically justifiable; the real problem lay with the state of the health service, and an incorrect assessment of the danger posed by Covid-19. An ongoing failure to resource emergency medicine, resulted in a perceived dependence of lockdowns that failed to take account of seasonality.

Rather than attempting to make a virtue out of what was surely possible in outdoor spaces the authorities adopted a no-can-do attitude that ramped up the misery.

Deep Background

A ‘Note on Sources’ says:

The majority of interviews that took place for this book in 2021 and 2022 were conducted under the journalistic ground rule of ‘deep background’. This means that all the information people told us in interviews could be used, but it could not be said who provided it.

In other words, political and senior civil service sources were at times unwilling to speak on the record, but nonetheless grasped an opportunity to manage the message, and offset any potential for reputational damage.

We can only guess at who featured most prominently in these “deep background” interviews, but the imprint is unmistakable of core Fine Gael players in the initial, caretaker government; as well as senior civil servants, including the all-powerful Cabinet Secretary Martin Fraser.

The authors do acknowledge that a very dangerous precedent was set in terms of powers being appropriated for long periods by unelected civil servants – and one man in particular – with only tenuous claims to expertise in infectious disease management.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect – previously revealed in Richard Chambers’s account – was the exclusion of successive Ministers of Health from NPHET, the all-powerful group for which there was no cabinet approval or even a ministerial order underpinning its establishment.

Yet we must wait until the Epilogue for the stark admission that ‘Some of the most drastic, expensive and cruel policies ever imposed by the State were arrived at within a system that was ad hoc and could be haphazard.’


CMO Tony Holohan became the public face of the state’s response from early on, and this book confirms his dominance over decision-making. The CMO called the shots and assembled a team to carry out his orders.

His decision to appoint Professor Philip Nolan – ‘The pair had known each other for years’– to oversee disease modelling ought to have prompted concern. Nolan was then President of Maynooth University, his ‘research was in physiology – specifically the control of breathing and the cardiovascular system during sleep.’ With no research background or expertise in infectious diseases Nolan’s wayward models – and bizarre commentary on antigen testing – informed Irish government decisions throughout the pandemic.

According to the authors, ‘almost everyone who attended NPHET meetings agreed on one thing above all others: a Tony Holohan production.’ An unnamed source described his style as ‘very dictatorial and autocratic,’ and ‘intolerant of alternative views.’

One NPHET member, Kevin Kelleher, was prepared to go on the record saying: ‘I felt the debate was controlled to ensure certain outcomes were achieved.’ Thus, he felt frustrated when arguing that testing policy should have look ‘more like how the HSE tests for other infectious diseases.’

Holohan, the son of a Garda, enjoyed ‘a good relationship’ with Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, who baulked at the former’s early attempts to prevent people from leaving the capital. Harris was apparently unwilling to impose blanket travel restrictions ‘on the basis that it could lead to Ireland becoming a police state.’ Initial reluctance to impede free movement – and become a police state – appears to have receded as the pandemic went by. Police checkpoints became a familiar sight across the country.

The relationship between Holohan and the Gardaí was put in sharp focus when a tweet by the CMO complained of scenes reminiscent of Jones’s Road on the day of an All-Ireland preceded a Garda baton charge on South William Street in Dublin.

Young people were grasping a rare opportunity to socialise in bizarre circumstances where pubs were permitted to serve takeaway pints but not allowed to provide outdoor seating. It came after many months of having their lives drastically impacted by restrictions.

The contempt of one deep source for the hoi polloi is unmistakable: ‘Tony might have phrased the tweet a bit better … Basically South William Street became scumbag central, for want of a better phrase, so that’s where we had to focus the policing effort.’

Infection Fatality Rate

As misleading accounts of the infection fatality rate of Covid-19 informed Western governments in spring, 2020 – especially via the famous, non-peer-reviewed Imperial College paper authored by Neil Ferguson which claimed an IFR of 0.9% – a global pandemonium of toilet roll buying proportions ensued. In early March Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s forecast that 85,000 people could die from the coronavirus in Ireland (over three times as many as died during the Spanish influenza pandemic). Having initially downplayed the challenge, his caretaker government were seemingly inclined to induce fear, which generates its own pathologies.

Based on what we now know were incorrect – duplicitous or otherwise – epidemiological assessment, many in positions of authority appear to have genuinely believed Neil Ferguson’s contention that Covid-19 represented “the next big one” – a re-run of the dreaded Spanish Influenza pandemic that took up to fifty million lives in 1918-19; as opposed to one similar to the Chinese and Hong Kong influenza pandemics episodes of the 1950s and 1960s.

Excess death is the best measurement of mortality during a pandemic. According to a global analysis of Covid-19 by Professor Lone Simonsen this pandemic has had ‘nowhere near the death toll of the pandemic of 1918.’ In Ireland in just one year of that outbreak 23,000 died, many of them young, whereas the mean age of death in Ireland from Covid-19 was eighty just two years younger than the average age of death,  while the level of excess mortality is considerably lower than the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19.[iii] This has led the Mayo Coroner to object that Covid deaths were being skewed by other illnesses.

Sadly, as the Swedish epidemiologist John Giesecke pointed out in an interview aired on Sky News Australia in April 2020, governments around the world seemed to be assuming that people were stupid. Giesecke also argued that authorities were failing to consider how they would end their reliance on lockdowns. He pointed to Swedish data showing that between 98 and 99% had either no symptoms or only mild symptoms from Covid-19, and guessed the IFR would turn out to be 0.1%, which now appears a reasonable approximation.

In contrast, as late as September, 2020 RTÉ’s Fergal Bowers was stating: ‘The World Health Organization says data to date suggests 80% of Covid-19 infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe infection, requiring oxygen and 5% are critical, requiring ventilation.’ Remarkably, Bowers seems to have copy and pasted this from a seriously out-of-date WHO Situation Report from March 6th, 2020, stating ‘data to date suggest that 80% of infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe infection, requiring oxygen and 5% are critical infections, requiring ventilation.’

It’s unlikely Bowers was working alone. Pandemonium reveals an early communications plan involving John Colcannon, indicating there would be ‘close collaboration’ with RTÉ in particular. This would be ‘critical to informing the public and helping in the national effort to respond.’ “Informing the public” did not necessarily mean a truthful account.

It is also notable that Martin Fraser wrote that ‘RTÉ’s financial issues from the Covid-19 crisis will have to be dealt with.’ The state broadcaster acted as a conduit for government press releases and leaks, faithfully broadcasting case numbers and deaths in almost every bulletin, without questioning their reliance on a highly unreliable PCR test. The main newspapers, receiving tens of millions in government advertising throughout, also faithfully headlined the daily case numbers and death figures.

The authors argue ‘the scenes from Bergamo were conditioning the State’s early response’, but it appears to have set the tone throughout, as politicians handed power to civil servants who tore up the social contract, amidst hysteria that owed a great deal to the penetration of social media in our lives.

Although expensively assembled Covid self-isolation facilities and field hospitals went largely unused throughout the pandemic, the authors do not question a dominant narrative that without near-constant lockdown Irish hospitals would have been completely overwhelmed.

Yet a recent ‘natural experiment’ carried out in the UK casts serious doubt on this orthodoxy. In a Guardian article clinical epidemiologist Raghib Ali outlines how, despite removing all, or most, restrictions in the summer of 2021, England actually had better outcomes than other UK regions:

England has actually had a similar rate of infection and a lower rate of Covid deaths during the Omicron wave – and since 19 July 2021, England’s “freedom day” – than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, despite having far fewer mandatory restrictions, and none after 24 February. This “natural experiment” shows that having more mandates did not lead to better outcomes.

It seems that once a generally mild respiratory virus such as Covid-19 becomes endemic restrictions have only a marginal effect.

Loss of Proportionality

In Ireland once lockdowns were normalised proportionality went out the window. We learn that an early influencer in this regard was Kevin Cunningham, a Dublin-born, Oxford-educated statistician – with no expertise in infectious diseases – who had previously founded Ireland Thinks with Ed Brophy, then advisor to Paschal Donohoe. Brophy had previously served as Joan Burton’s chief of staff.

Informed by erroneous early modelling that took no account of distinctive social and environmental conditions, Cunningham wrote a series of emails to Varadkar in February painting a doomsday scenario.

Cunningham was also able to convince Brophy that ‘Nobody will blame the government for taking too many precautions on coronavirus.’ This led Brophy to text his Taoiseach Varadkar – who was receiving less stark advice from his own public health official – to the effect that ‘We really need to fucking move on this.’

The calculation, cynical or otherwise, of the governing class in Ireland was that no one would blame them “for taking too many precautions.” This informed one of the most stringent responses of any country in the world. A cowed and misinformed public would accept whatever medicine was applied, with opponents castigated as libertarians or far-right conspiracy nuts.

Fault also lay with the failure of the opposition to articulate alternatives to lockdowns, especially after the Utopian ideal of ZeroCovid zealots gained traction among smaller left-wing parties, while Sinn Fein seemed unwilling to gamble on an alternative strategy.

It certainly didn’t help having a bumbling Boris Johnson promoting a herd immunity strategy, or Donald Trump musing on the benefits of bleach. Nor was any argument for moderation helped by a far-right extremist such as Gemma O’Doherty launching foul-mouthed tirades at Garda checkpoints.

Thus, Ireland was locked down and ordered to await our Saviour: the vaccine. Yet according to Peter Doshi in an article British Medical Journal in October, 2020, trials were not even designed to tell whether it would save lives.

Pharmaceutical Industry

As a trained doctor, Varadkar commanded respect during a pandemic that saved his political career. Troublingly, however, Pandemonium reveals his contacts with Pfizer executives, a company which stood to profit enormously from any vaccine – notwithstanding that the benefits could be quite marginal. Notably, despite a widely lauded vaccination roll out, restrictions stretched on, seemingly interminably, from January 2021 until almost the entire population had been infected by the highly transmissible Omicron variety. This seems to have finally dispelled the sense of dread associated with the virus.

We learn that in September, 2020 Varadkar ‘had been told by Paul Reid (no relation of the HSE’s Paul Reid) that a vaccine would be ready by the end of the year.’ Varadkar appeared to regard the regulatory process as a mere formality. Perhaps he was right.

In an article for Forbes in September 2020, praising the ‘unusually transparent action’ for a Covid-19 vaccine trials, William A. Heseltine a former professor at the Harvard School of Medicine wrote: ‘close inspection of the protocols raises surprising concerns. These trials seem designed to prove their vaccines work, even if the measured effects are minimal.’

He went on to point out that ‘prevention of infection is not a criterion for success for any of these vaccines.’ In fact, ‘their endpoints all require confirmed infections and all those they will include in the analysis for success, the only difference being the severity of symptoms between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.’

He added that

Three of the vaccine protocols—Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca—do not require that their vaccine prevent serious disease only that they prevent moderate symptoms which may be as mild as cough, or headache.

Furthermore, in October leading health experts in the U.S. sent a public letter to Pfizer warning against a premature application that ‘would severely erode public trust and set back efforts to achieve widespread vaccination. In short, a premature application would prolong the pandemic, with disastrous consequences.’

Yet Varadkar, like Trump, seemed convinced – based on his contacts with a Pfizer executive as opposed to analysis of trial protocols – that a panacea was on the horizon. What we may have got was a confidence trick, upholding the already tarnished reputation of evidence-based medicine.

The orthodoxy that the vaccine represented the one and only solution became an article faith among the Irish governing and media class, justifying the stringency of restrictions and erosion of fundamental rights that culminated in vaccine passports and sinister broodings in leading newspapers on the mandating of vaccines.

The authors maintain the party line that Pfizer’s vaccine was ‘incredibly effective’, yet seem perplexed that by late 2021 ‘Ireland was caught in the bizarre situation of having among the highest vaccination rates in the developed world, but again being imperilled by rising case loads and a health service that was struggling to cope.’

Micheál Martin

Taoiseach Micheál Martin played a less prominent role than his predecessor Leo Varadkar. He may be praised for lifting almost all restrictions at the end of January, 2022, when it could have been politically expedient to maintain a few in the face of continued hysteria. He also placed an ‘unrivalled emphasis on keeping schools open,’ which begs the question: how long would closures have continued otherwise?

Less commendable, was Martin’s tendency to take refuge in sacred public health advice supplied by Bishop Tony. He also played a curious role in the introduction of face mask mandates. We learn that Martin’s phone had been ‘buzzing with texts from his sister-in-law in Singapore. ‘Masks, masks, masks,’ she told him.’

Earlier, Martin Cormican informed NPHET that, ‘if there is a benefit, it is very small’, and that ‘widespread mask use also rapidly degenerates with poor practice, which could increase the risk of Covid-19 transmission.’

Yet, desptie a broad scientific consensus as to their irrelevance prior to 2020, reiterated by the expert advice of Professor Carl Heneghan at the Dáil Inquiry in the summer of 2020, Ireland followed many countries in introducing mandates that summer. Here again, it is notable that the Swedish authorities adopted an alternative approach. Decisive evidence for the efficacy of face masks remains elusive. An analysis of six studies found a risk of bias ranging from moderate to serious or critical. Perhaps the public health rational was simply to induce fear of social interaction.

We also learn of Angela Merkel ringing up the Taoiseach to air her concerns about the Irish case trajectory in the Christmas of 2020, and Martin recalling her bringing this up again ‘at the bloody EU Council meeting.’ Merkel appeared to be demanding a level of stringency in other European states that ignored wider impacts. Just as during the era of austerity, the Irish government would endeavour to be the best boy in the European class and disregard the consequences.

Non-Sterilising Vaccines

Non-sterilising Covid-19 vaccines, which do not prevent onward transmission of the virus, may have only made a marginal difference to the global mortality toll. Evidence to the effect that the main (Pfizer) vaccine saves lives, or even prevents hospitalisations, also remains equivocal.

In January, 2021, Peter Doshi and Donald Light in the Scientific American objected to the undermining of ‘the scientific integrity of the double-blinded clinical trial the company—and other companies—have been conducting, before statistically valid information can be gathered on how effectively the vaccines prevent hospitalizations, intensive care admissions or deaths.’

A Lancet article distinguishes an absolute risk reduction of approximately 1% from the relative risk reduction of c. 95%. Yet mainstream media outlets invariably quote relative risk reduction, while conspicuously ignoring reports of trial irregularities that emerged in the medical literature.

Mainstream Irish media failed to interrogate the efficacy of these pharmaceutical products. In the Irish Times on October 28, 2020, Kathy Sheridan – before regulatory approval had been granted – went so far as to write: ‘One thing is clear, even when a vaccine emerges the mother of all marketing and reassurance jobs will be required.’

That a member of the fourth estate considered marketing a medication to be her role is quite disturbing, especially given the adverse reactions that previously occurred in the wake of a vaccine being rushed to market in response to the Swine Flu Pandemic-that-never-was. Unsurprisingly, no attention was given in the Irish media to early reports of serious adverse reactions among elderly patients.

Against the Grain

The authors of a book such Pandemonium were unlikely to go against the grain, and question foundational assumptions that still underpin most Irish people’s understanding of the nightmarish years – at least for some – of 2020-2021. Nonetheless this is an important source explaining how Ireland was governed during the period.

It should be acknowledged that the complexity of scientific debates underpinning the response to Covid-19 are challenging for over-worked journalists tasked with filing daily stories. Inevitably journalists rely on expert accounts. But this should be accompanied by an awareness that scientific discourses are never entirely objective, and that expertise is subject to regulatory capture and other forms of corruption, especially where the legendarily corrupt pharmaceutical industry is involved.

A major problem, particularly during the crucial early stages of the pandemic, was a global scientific groupthink that came about through passive and active censorship of viewpoints that questioned the WHO’s global response of promoting lockdowns. Instructively in April, 2020 Stefan Baral, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health, wrote a letter about the potential harms of lockdowns which was rejected from more than ten scientific journals (and six newspapers). Baral recalls, ‘it was the first time in my career that I could not get a piece placed anywhere.’

He also recalled that, ‘highly anticipated results of the only randomized controlled trial of mask wearing and COVID-19 infection went unpublished for months.’ Accordingly, the ‘net effect of academic bullying and ad hominem attacks has been the creation and maintenance of “groupthink”—a problem that carries its own deadly consequences.’

The big lie was that we were all in this together. Notably the world’s top ten richest men doubled their fortunes during the pandemic, while the incomes of 99% of humanity fell. It was a particularly lucrative period for pharmaceutical companies, including one partly owned by Professor Luke O’Neill, a go-to figure for the Irish media, who emerged as a latter day Father Brian Trendy complete with guitar band.

To date there has been an inadequate global reckoning over what happened in response to Covid-19. As in the wake of the last Financial Crisis, it seems that certain institutions and reputations are ‘too big to fail.’

In Ireland, meanwhile, we appear to have “moved on” from the pandemic without any serious interrogation of what has occurred. It seems astonishing that the state could have spent close to €1 billion on PPE in 2020 alone without there being a serious inquiry into the procurement process.

A proper national conversation might explore distinctive cultural tendencies that reasserted themselves in a period of crisis. That evaluation is left to future historians. Then we may well hear the cry once more: “We didn’t know, no one told us.”

Feature Image: (c) Daniele Idini

[i] Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation, (Fourth Estate, London, 2005) p.XXV

[ii] Joe Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: politics and society (Cambridge, 1989) pp.605-607

[iii] Worldometre attributes 1,736 deaths to COVID-19 by December 31st, 2020. But the level of mortality through the years 2018-2020 (2018: 31,116; 2019: 31,134; 2020: 31,765) show little difference.


About Author

Frank Armstrong graduated with a BA (International) from UCD majoring in history, during which time he spent a year at the University of Amsterdam on an Erasmus scholarship. He later earned a barrister-at-law degree at the Honorable Society of King’s Inns, and gained a Masters in Islamic Societies and Cultures at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, before taking a Post-Graduate Diploma in Education. Prior to setting up Cassandra Voices his writing was published in the Irish Times, the London Magazine, the Dublin Review of Books, Village Magazine, and the Law Society Gazette, among others. He is the editor-in-chief of Cassandra Voices.

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