Opinion: Micheál will shoot himself in the foot if vaccine roll-out isn’t managed properly

In his weekly column John Dolan looks at how Micheál Martin, who only became Taoiseach 196 days ago, is handling the Covid crisis
Opinion: Micheál will shoot himself in the foot if vaccine roll-out isn’t managed properly

Prof Mary Horgan, Consultant in Infectious Diseases at CUH & President of the RCPI pictured after receiving the actual first dose of the Covid 19 vaccine at Cork University Hospital.

THEY called Bertie Ahern the ‘Teflon Taoiseach’, a nickname that stuck to him — pardon the pun — in the early years of this century, until, like all political careers, his too ended in eventual failure.

For a long while as leader of Fianna Fáil and as Taoiseach, any muck that was flying around in politics never seemed to soil Bertie’s reputation; like the famous Teflon pans, nothing ever seemed to stick.

It’s a very handy trait to have in modern politics, where it’s never a matter of if a scandal will arrive, but when, and how many, and how you handle it.

Micheál Martin only became Taoiseach 196 days ago and he has already had to deal with his share of scandals and misdemeanours, many of them involving a long conveyer belt of faltering Agriculture Ministers.

This has all come at a time when a once-in-a-century pandemic has caused tragedy and suffering across the land, and devastated the economy.

There is not a sector of life that has not been adversely affected by Covid-19; meanwhile, every call Micheál makes, whether it’s opening up the country before Christmas, or slamming the door shut again last week, is being scrutinised and judged — often with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, long after the event.

All of this should make the second-ever Cork Taoiseach a deeply unpopular figure, as the country — never in the best of moods in any given January — grows ever-more weary of Covid restrictions. But I am sensing that is not the case.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin during a press conference at Government Buildings. Picture: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire
Taoiseach Micheal Martin during a press conference at Government Buildings. Picture: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire

Perhaps it is Micheál’s innate decency, his patience, experience, and calm demeanour. Or perhaps we are a forgiving lot, realise that he was pitched into a near-impossible job, and would rather circle the wagons around our chieftain at a time of crisis than fire arrows into him.

Or perhaps, like his predecessor Bertie, the Turners Cross man is a Teflon Taoiseach, whose fingerprints are never found at the scene of a ‘crime’, but who arrives soon after to clean up the mess, disposing of any Agriculture Ministers who may have slipped up.

Could this ability to dodge the slings and arrows of politics be Micheál’s salvation, as he seeks to cement his reputation as a good Taoiseach while also clinging to power in Fianna Fáil?

Similarly, any fall-out from Covid-19 in the remaining 23 months of his time as Taoiseach, in terms of housing, health and the economy, may not fatally damage his reputation and legacy, so long as the public keep giving him a free Covid pass.

But there is one area where Micheál is vulnerable, and which may prove to be his ultimate downfall: Vaccines, and more specifically, their roll-out.

These have arrived solely on his watch and been seized upon by a grateful nation, anxious to be rid of this cursed plague and for a return to normality.

The nation is relying on them to deliver us safely and, crucially, as swiftly as possible, out of this recurring lockdown nightmare.

It is on the vaccination issue that the nation may well end up judging Micheál Martin’s entire time as Taoiseach. The roll-out of them, if it goes well, will seal his reputation as a competent leader. But if he drops the ball, and other countries are ahead of us on this, it could prove to be his downfall.

Pictured outside Government Buildings today is Taoiseach Micheal Martin. Picture: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie
Pictured outside Government Buildings today is Taoiseach Micheal Martin. Picture: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Furthermore, the lockdowns, though horrible calls to make, have been easy. The vaccines require management, monitoring, competence and clear-eyed direction.

The bad news for the Corkman is that the early portents are not looking good. Let’s just say the vaccination programme has got off to a bad start in Ireland.

The perception is that our health system was — bizarrely — under-prepared for the vaccines when they finally arrived, and that the roll-out has been cloaked in confusion and secrecy thus far, while appearing to travel at glacial speed.

It doesn’t help the public perception either that we are in the hands of the Department of Health and HSE, whose track record on large logistical projects is, um, shaky to the say the least. The CervicalCheck scandal was just the most recent of these.

Meanwhile, these two agencies preside over a system perceived as awash with bureaucracy, causing long queues for patients, and leading to a workforce who feel under-valued.

Micheál will be aware of these shortcomings — he was Minister of Health for almost five years under Bertie Ahern. He must also be aware that the vaccinations programme could give his career a vital shot in the arm... or be an injection of poison.

It’s strange, then, that both he and the Government generally have been so keen to accentuate the negative since the vaccines arrived on our shores, preferring to concentrate on soaring cases and hospitalisations at the sharp end of the crisis, instead of giving the nation reasons for optimism as we face into yet another demoralising lockdown.

Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth.

The only time the vaccine is mentioned is alongside rather gloomy predictions that we might see some relief from Covid come the summer. Gee thanks!

I appreciate that the current situation is bleak and at a critical point for our health system, but in a week or so, the numbers will inevitably start to stabilise and fall, as they did after the other two level five lockdowns.

There is a sense of weary deja vu about the catastrophising and doom and gloom this time — but the big difference now should be the hope offered by the vaccines.

We are seeing other countries such as the UK and USA making in-roads into their populations, while the likes of Israel, with a population not much larger than Ireland’s, are racing ahead.

We in Ireland still seem to be on the starting line, dithering.

If the issue is lack of vaccines, we must demand more from the EU agencies. If the EU has dropped the ball on this, we must say so — criticising the EU is hardly akin to being a Brexiteer, you know!

But if the issue is lack of organisation and structure in Ireland, then Micheál simply must take the entire vaccination programme in hand, inject a sense of urgency and organisation, then project this to the public.

He must ensure the number of daily vaccinations is high, and the figures must be released with each evening announcement on Covid cases and deaths, to boost morale.

Ireland has a distinct advantage, our population is relatively small, so vaccinating the elderly and vulnerable ought to be be a relatively quick turnaround. But the fact my 75-year-old mother in England has already been give a February date for her jab, while the vaccinations here were still being given to hospital staff ten days after arriving in Ireland, does not fill me with confidence.

How ironic would it be if Boris Johnson across the water salvaged his tattered reputation over Covid by presiding over a successful and swift vaccination programme that got the UK back on its feet, while our own Taoiseach undid all his good work so far by overseeing a chaotic and long-winded roll-out.

The vaccination should be a shot in our arm, not a shot in your foot. Vaccines are meant to be the light at the end of a tunnel, not the lights of a train coming the other way.

So do yourself a favour, Micheál roll your sleeves up and take control of the vaccine programme.

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