Communications and politics in a time of COVID-19

Andrew Smith, Senior Account Executive of Murray looks at the last hundred days…

Ireland recently passed a significant anniversary – one hundred days since the first case of Covid-19 was officially diagnosed in the country.

It’s hard to remember that a General Election even happened this year given the all-consuming nature of the Covid emergency. However, as fears surrounding the pandemic start to ease, attention now turns to the next Government, following agreement between the leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party.

 That agreement took its time.  Four months since the election, had things moved more quickly we could have been analysing the first hundred days of a new Government around now, instead of speculating over the makeup of a new cabinet..

Ministers could have started implementing new policies. If there had been no Covid crisis we would be tentatively looking towards a budget where tax cuts and increased spending might have been expected.

But the General Election produced a monumental shift.  It placed our two largest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, closer than ever before.  A virus which began in lands far from ours landed in late February and took hold of our economy and everyday life.

You have to go back to the 31st of January for the first statement from the National Public Health Emergency Team relating to Coronavirus. We were preoccupied that day with Britain leaving the European Union (remember Brexit, anyone?).  NPHET’s statement may have gone unnoticed then but NPHET is now a household name. Tony Holohan is a familiar face, and his measured and candid daily briefings on the worst of news have been widely praised in many quarters across the political divide.

A decision was taken early on in this emergency that our response would be led by public health officials, using evidence and scientific data to inform the hard decisions. Holohan, Nolan, de Gascun et al became the medium through which we have come to understand and, it must be said, effectively tackle Covid-19. Varadkar, Harris and Coveney have made selected appearances, saved in the main for bigger moments.

In time, I think it likely we’ll reflect on the level of prominence of our medical professionals as a deliberate political strategy within the overall response to Covid-19. Ireland was in a precarious political situation in mid-February; a caretaker Government, a restless Fianna Fail, a resurgent Sinn Fein. On the face of it, this was not the strongest position for a State to be in as it began to respond to Covid-19.

A rushed rainbow coalition might have had to work hard to gain momentum in the delivery of information and effectiveness of response. Another minority Government with the same challenges as before would have been much more open to collapse. Sinn Fein at the helm would have been starting from scratch in a scenario where relationships are fundamental. Those relationships cannot be understated at a time of crisis.

I grew up in a house with an accomplished project manager. Technical knowledge is central to the delivery of any project or overcoming a problem. But I also often overheard first-hand (he was working from home before it was mandatory!) the importance of being able to pick up the phone and cut through the red tape. Having an existing structure in place, where Ministers and their staff knew the Assistant Secretaries of Departments who knew the best people for the job, is likely to have had a major impact on our ability to move fast and, ultimately, save lives.

A health-led approach also provided a layer of insulation, particularly to those in Fine Gael. We’re much less likely to question the recommendations of people with letters after their name, as opposed to the decisions of politicians. Leo Varadkar’s appearances have been controlled and chosen wisely, allowing a much more statesman-like persona to develop. Whether Simon Harris will get to keep his job over the coming weeks remains to be seen, but he has faced a lot less criticism than in the rocky months prior to the pandemic.

 Government formation ticked on quietly in the background, never being the main show in town until very recently. So the government response to the pandemic was insulated from the majority of criticism it could have been open to had our politicians taken centre stage. We need only look to our nearest neighbour as a barometer for the confusion that can sow.

Leo Varadkar will now take up the role of Tanaiste for the next two- and a-bit years, likely taking satisfaction that many accept that his Government’s response to Covid-19 potentially averted thousands more deaths.  He can also likely take comfort that the next two budgets – to be amongst two of the most significant in modern Ireland - will be headed by a Fianna Fail Taoiseach.

It's not the crisis, but how you respond to it that is often the PR mantra.

In this case, the response was swift. Deferring to the experts and keeping up a constant flow of communication and public information has worked well. Credible spokespersons who stayed on message were a visible weapon in combatting Covid-19. Their impartiality allowed them to deliver the facts to a population in need of direction and, sometime, reassurance.

Has everything been perfect? Of course not, and it never could have been with such an unprecedented challenge.

 The deaths of all in this country; in hospitals, care homes and the community will be long remembered, and a way to celebrate everyone who sacrificed so much should be high up the agenda of the next Government.  Jacinda Ardern has got the closest to something resembling a perfect response, and people looking for a lesson in leadership, communication and empathy could learn a lot from New Zealand’s Prime Minister.

But as they gear up for the rollercoaster ride that this new coalition Government will undoubtedly be, we can reflect that we don’t always get our response to a crisis in the country right, but maybe, just maybe, we’ve gotten the most important one right.