Covid loomed large over Ireland last week. Thankfully not the virus itself, but rather indications from the government that finally an inquiry into the state’s handling of the pandemic will be set up with an estimated mid-year start date.

Considering that the first confirmed case on the island of Ireland was on February 27, 2020, and the first in the Republic two days later, it is a long wait for answers to the many questions relating to the decisions that were taken during the crisis by the government, the Health Service Executive (HSE) and by care homes for the elderly. It is a lengthy delay also for the voices and stories of those impacted to be heard - and heard in public. 

While the government continues to dither in terms of setting up a comprehensive evaluation of our pandemic response, the suspicion is that they are more concerned about protecting reputations than ensuring a comprehensive evaluation.

Remarkably, the government still has to agree on terms of reference despite a promise 12 months ago that this would happen “within weeks.”

While there is general acceptance that decisions were taken by government with the best of intentions in mind, it is now clear that mistakes were made and need to be learned from. 

Along with gathering facts, any inquiry must also include an investigation into the failures both before and during the pandemic. But public confidence that this will actually happen is low. 

Truth is that if the previous history of the HSE is anything to go by, the omens for an open and transparent inquiry are not good. Take the case of one of the most tragic and heartbreaking outbreaks of Covid which took place in the St. Mary’s Phoenix Park Nursing Home in Dublin where 22 Covid-related deaths occurred during the first wave of the pandemic. 

Following information and concerns relayed to the HSE by Margo Hannon, a healthcare worker who was working in the facility at the time, an external review was established. Over two years, the investigation team met the families of the residents who died, the whistleblower, and staff at the hospital. 

The complaints were significant and involved 12 separate areas ranging from clinical practice to environmental factors relating to the building.

Hannon made it clear from the start that the whole point of her disclosures was to alert other nursing home managers so they could learn from the experience of St. Mary’s and hopefully avoid further unnecessary suffering and fatalities.

A 500-page document outlining the findings of the investigation was submitted to the HSE in May of last year and has been sitting on desks since then. Finally, last week, 1,000 days after the whistleblower made her complaint, a 36-page executive summary was released. The HSE has refused to publish the full report. 

Hannon said that she was “frustrated and disappointed with the inexcusable delay” in getting to this point and that because of the failure to release the full document, her “core objective was a complete failure.” Her frustration is echoed by grieving relatives of those who died. 

If the full story of what happened in a single nursing home can’t see the light of day, what hope is there a broader inquiry will have a different result? This really goes to the heart of the criticisms against the government’s national response to Covid in that there is a widespread belief there were unnecessary deaths among the elderly in state care. 

According to Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, there were over 8,600 deaths from Covid in the Republic of Ireland up to the end of February of this year, and of those, 27 percent happened in nursing homes. Failure to properly protect this cohort, the most helpless, put them at the most risk.

What’s also concerning is that those who were in control at the start of the epidemic are trying to set the mood music in advance of any investigation. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is on record on a number of occasions as saying an inquiry should not be about “pointing fingers or ascribing blame.” His predecessor Micheál Martin said that health chiefs and government ministers who played a central role in Ireland’s pandemic response will not be put in the witness box as part of the inquiry.

The then-head of the HSE, Paul Reid, has also chimed in, saying that “revisionism” should not be part of any investigation.

No need to ask questions then Paul, just publish your daily briefing notes from that time.

Thankfully, Reid will not have his way, and already large cracks are appearing in what was once a uniform response to the pandemic by the government-appointed Nphet (National Public Health Emergency Team).

Former Nphet member, Professor Martin Cormican, an infection control expert, has come out in the last fortnight and openly criticized much of the official response to Covid, saying we relied “too much on fear” to influence people’s behavior.

None of the sacred mantras were spared in his analysis which criticized the long-term closure of schools, visitor bans in nursing homes, the mask mandate, and social distancing. 

While it is safe to say that on many of these issues, his opinion is still a minority one, his intervention has thrown the proverbial cat among the pigeons. It has changed the whole dynamic of any inquiry. 

Instead of an under-the-radar questioning of decisions taken, the onus is now on those who made the choices to justify what they did. We now know that there were other voices in the room with dissenting opinions. 

If previous inquiries are anything to go by, tens of millions will be spent with rich pickings for the legal profession, so it is ironic that we will probably learn more from brave dissenters and whistleblowers like Margo Hannon and Martin Cormican. 

Why were they not listened to? No doubt in many cases there were good reasons, but tell us what they were. 

It is no longer about what we did during the pandemic, but more about why we did it.

*This column first appeared in the March 8 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral. Michael O'Dowd is brothers with Niall O'Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.