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When should Ministers stay quiet and let the experts speak?

By Mindo - 14th May 2021

The Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly came in for some criticism recently when it was revealed that he asked Department of Health officials why he was not being mentioned in tweets from the Department’s feed. According to a story in The Irish Times in April, an analysis of the feed was completed for the Minister in mid-January.

It showed no references were made to Minister Donnelly during the period in question. In contrast, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan was referenced in 21 tweets. Other national public health emergency team members were also mentioned. Minister Donnelly’s predecessor and current Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris was mentioned 10 times in his Department’s feed, which was “more than any other person or entity”.

The criticism of Minister Donnelly was entirely predictable in the current context. Many people maintained he should be more concerned about the not insignificant matter of the pandemic, rather than how often he is mentioned on social media. But the story also brings to mind the question, namely: Does overtly linking a policy with a particular Minister, party or Government, sometimes harm its reception regardless of the policy’s merit?

The introduction of any new policy is invariably accompanied with a press release that begins with the Minister in question being ‘delighted to launch’, etc. Often initiatives are established as a result of the ideological disposition of the Government, of course. Sometimes these policies have been ‘pet projects’ of individual Ministers. But other times they have been in process long before the Minister came into office.

Minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol has been talked about for many years. An RCPI policy group on alcohol was established in 2012. One of the recommendations made by the group was the introduction of MUP. The measure was subsequently contained in section 11 of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018, which was recently commenced by the Government.

The public reaction to the move has not been the most positive, if Twitter is a barometer of these things. The measure has been labelled ‘classist’ and one that will most adversely affect the poorest in society and those struggling with addiction. It is seen by many on social media as symptomatic of successive administrations, which have allowed a housing crisis and homelessness to spiral. Introducing the legislation during a pandemic has also been criticised.

Have the voices of public health doctors been loud enough to counter these arguments? Has the evidence of the effect of MUP in Scotland been sufficiently explained? The introduction of the measure has been welcomed by doctors’ groups, such as the RCPI and the IMO, but these voices have been somewhat peripheral in online debate.

The important role of public health doctors and other experts during the Covid-19 crisis has been rightly praised for explaining why social distancing and other measures are essential to control the spread of the virus. Such input is even more important to inform and legitimise the response to the pandemic during a time when a fragile coalition is in power. While the Government ultimately decides and is responsible for policy direction, the population’s opinion of a given administration determines how these policies are received.

When it comes to healthcare, doctors have become increasingly vocal in their role as advocates. Perhaps governments and Ministers need to recognise when it is the right time for them to stay quiet and let these voices be heard.

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