Consultant geriatrician Dr Ronan Collins has defended the Government’s response during the Covid-19 pandemic following criticism that the State’s approach was led by fear rather than science.
Responding to comments made by a former member of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), Professor Martin Cormican, Dr Collins said: “I think the Government acted in good faith with the best available advice at the time. And I also think that maybe when you look at our death rates compared to other European countries, the Government’s policy would have shown, at least, that it didn’t fail.”
“I’m not saying it succeeded, but it didn’t fail,” he told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland.
Dr Collins, who is the HSE’s lead on stroke treatment, acknowledged that he had been very alarmed and concerned at the start of the pandemic, with calls for the elderly to cocoon.
“I think it did a lot of damage, I think that’s clear to everybody and I think we’re still seeing some of the consequences of that.”
He added: “Martin [Cormican]’s comments about decisions being driven by fear, I think that’s true. But then again, when I reflect personally, I think we were all frightened.
“When I first saw those scenes myself in Lombardy, and being a working doctor and having a spouse who is a working doctor, there was tremendous fear about what this might mean and the risk personally.”
It was hard to keep track of the science, he said, stating medicine also failed in the early stages of the pandemic. However, he added that eventually science reacted “amazingly quickly” with the speedy development of a vaccine.
“In the early stages, the science was confused, I think, and difficult to interpret.
“But I think there is a truism and saying, as well, that I suppose before you implemented such draconian measures, you had to have some very strong scientific evidence behind it that it’s going to have a good impact, and that wasn’t clear at the time, nut it was such a fearful time,” he said.
When asked about a letter from Chief Medical Officer Professor Breda Smyth expressing concern that some older people have not yet resumed normal activities, Dr Collins said he thought most people had “come back to life”.
However, this was not just an age related issue, he warned. During the pandemic, the evidence had indicated that feelings of depression and feelings of loneliness were actually greater amongst younger groups than older groups.
The discussion about social engagement needs to be broadened out into the topic of loneliness in general and how society connects, he urged.
“There are strong health benefits for both older and younger people by engaging much wider, older, intergenerationally, and I think that is a challenge for society.”
Dr Collins said he had not been surprised at the number of Covid deaths in nursing homes, given that people there had complex medical conditions and were more frail.
“That being, there were factors around our nursing homes and the governance and medical management of our nursing homes, about the State’s preparedness to protect people in those settings, and our model of care in nursing homes in general that left a lot to be desired for.
“I would stress that from a clinical point of view, I don’t think we need an inquiry into how nursing homes were handled. I think we’ve done that already.
“An expert panel was set up in 2021 to look at the issue of Covid in nursing homes and the very high mortality and indeed the problems that were readily identified and through research and through experience early on, and that panel made its recommendations.
“Rather than an inquiry, I’d be asking to actually look at those recommendations that were made and how far along the road we are to implementing them.”
Dr Collins added that people’s experiences needed to be heard.
“It needs to be a mechanism to learn those very valuable and heartfelt experiences that people had. I think the expert panel that was set up in 2021 was very clear and made very good and far-reaching recommendations that I think we should be concentrating on implementing those now.”