radio silence | 

Taoiseach denies Nphet has been ‘gagged’ as pressure mounts over media restrictions

Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Picture by Julien Behal

THE Government coming under pressure to explain why scientific experts in that National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) need official clearance in future before they can publicly speak about the Covid-19 pandemic.

Two leading members of Nphet, who were willing to appear on weekend radio shows, were later described as being “unavailable” by government officials.

It has now emerged that all future media appearances by Nphet members must be cleared via the Government Information Service (GIS) based at the Taoiseach’s department in Government Buildings.

Speaking today, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said there was no question of sidelining Nphet’s communication with the public.

The Irish Times reported that, while speaking in Ennis, Co Clare, today, Mr Martin said: “There is no question of anyone being gagged.”

He said he had no issues with Nphet but believed there were areas where they could “streamline and evaluate” communication.

“These measures are unanimously advised by Nphet and accepted by Government, they are designed to protect public health and life over the coming period, particularly in the context of Omicron which is a variant about which not enough is known and risks are better not to be taken in advance of that knowledge. It’s better to be proactive than reactive,” the Taoiseach said.

Mr Martin said “co-ordination” was key in terms of the Government’s messaging.

He said he believes that chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan is also aware of the importance of that co-ordination.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe also defended the move insisting it was no way intended “to clip Nphet’s wings”, while suggesting a need for a coordinated message as the pandemic continued beyond its second year.

But Labour’s public service spokesman, Ged Nash, said his party would tomorrow press the Government to “explain this most unusual move”.

“This is a very unusual situation and I urge the Government to re-think this policy. Up to now it has suited the Government to have Nphet express its views on Covid-19 directly with the public. So, why the change now?” Mr Nash told the Irish Independent.

On Friday, it was announced that one leading member of Nphet, Dr Philip Nolan, was due to appear on a Newstalk current affairs programme on Saturday morning. But he did not appear.

Earlier today, Newstalk presenter Gavan Reilly told listeners he had a personal agreement with a prominent member of Nphet to contribute to his programme. But Mr Reilly was later told by a government official that no member of Nphet was available.

Asked about the need for this clearance from the GIS, Mr Donohoe insisted that it was simply an effort to have more coordinated messages communicated to the public.

“We are only trying to ensure the same communication is in place,” he told RTÉ’s This Week programme.

Mr Donohoe was asked about conflicts between Nphet and the Cabinet last week as new restrictions were announced. Ministers were infuriated by alleged leaks of Nphet’s advice on Thursday night ahead of a government meeting on Friday where they actually endorsed the expert recommendations in full.

The Finance Minister avoided addressing this issue about conflict. “At the end of last we were making decisions, it was a challenging period, as different information was available,” he said.

“What I’m aware of are there are listeners to this programme, workers in the economy, who are hearing different scenarios of what’s happening.”

He added people were concerned “for their future,” and thus communications should be aligned.

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