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Tensions grow as Nphet members must now ask Government for permission to appear on TV and radio

Dr Tony Holohan and Dr Ronan Glynn. Photo: Colin Keegan

Hugh O’Connell

Ministers have agreed new measures to stop senior health officials appearing in the media without the Government press office’s approval, as fresh tensions have emerged over the latest round of Covid restrictions.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (Nphet) head of modelling Philip Nolan both faced criticism by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, and senior ministers. It came over the manner in which their latest advice to reintroduce some restrictions on household visits, hospitality, and live events emerged through leaks on Thursday night following the public health team’s meeting.

The Government and its public health advisers clashed at what multiple sources said was a tense and at times ill-tempered meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 yesterday.

Two sources at the meeting claimed Leo Varadkar said Nphet had now become a “political organisation”, although the Tánaiste is understood to be disputing this account.

Mr Varadkar did publicly call for an external review of Nphet’s modelling, saying it would be “useful” given that regularly the group’s “most optimistic models have been too pessimistic”.

“I think a peer review or external review would be welcome,” he added.

Mr Varadkar also said it was “hard to understand” and “hard to explain” why the Government was introducing restrictions while cases numbers and hospitalisations were decreasing.

However, he said the threat of the Omicron variant coupled with Christmas socialising and the traditional winter flu meant the new restrictions were necessary.

The Irish Independent understands there was some discussion at the sub-committee meeting if the emergence of Nphet advice on Thursday night should now be the subject of a leak investigation.

Ministers Paschal Donohoe, Catherine Martin and Helen McEntee are all understood to have criticised the emergence of Nphet advice via journalists on Twitter on Thursday night.

Mr Donohoe pointed out he was on the floor of the Dáil dealing with the Finance Bill when he heard about the Nphet advice.

It has also been noted that Health Minister Stephen Donnelly was in the Dáil dealing with hotel quarantine legislation on Thursday night when he did not even have the Nphet letter from Dr Holohan as the leaks began to emerge.At the tense and hastily arranged Cabinet sub-committee meeting early yesterday, Mr Donohoe is understood to have intervened a second time believing his issue about leaks had not been responded to by Dr Holohan.

One participating described it as a “pretty intense meeting”.

The chief medical officer is understood to have told the Coalition leaders, ministers and senior officials that neither he nor anyone who worked on the formal letter to Mr Donnelly could have been the source of the leak.

The CMO has had long standing concerns about leaks from Nphet meetings and specifically emphasised the need to avoid leaking at both the start and the end of the Nphet meeting on Thursday.

At a meeting of the full Cabinet yesterday to agree the new public health measures, ministers also agreed all communications should now be managed and co-ordinated centrally through the Government Information Service, the official name for the Government press office.

This will include “co-ordinating all media by civil and public servants and members of advisory bodies in respect of Covid-related matters”, according to the Cabinet memo.

Ministers speaking privately afterwards said this was an effort to counteract recent examples of Nphet members going on radio and television and giving messaging that varied from the Government.

“No ambiguity,” a senior Government source said last night. “If anyone goes against the decision, they will be going against a Government decision.”

A number of media comments made by Nphet officials in recent times have raised eyebrows.

Just this week, Dr Holohan’s office sent out a press release telling parents to avoid allowing children attend birthday parties, play dates and other indoor events. It came shortly after ministers decided their advice was for parents to limit a child’s socialising to one of these activities per week.

The deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn also created a headache for the Government in recent days when he claimed public health officials never said schools were a safe environment.

Ministers had for months cited Nphet advice on the issue and there were multiple examples of officials suggesting that schools were a safe environment.

Dr Glynn previously urged people to work from home when the official policy was for companies to undertake a gradual return to the office.

Another controversy arose when Mr Nolan suggested a supermarket should sell snake oil alongside antigen tests.

In another interview last October, Mr Nolan suggested leaving the house with Covid symptoms should be seen in the same socially unacceptable light as drink-driving.

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