Home » Breaking News » Clashes, lockdowns and a state of fear in Richard’s raw account of pandemic
20/10/20 Virgin Media news reporter Richard Chambers photographed in the news room in Ballymount Pic: Marc O'Sullivan

Clashes, lockdowns and a state of fear in Richard’s raw account of pandemic


Clare-raised reporter for Virgin Media News Richard Chambers speaks to Owen Ryan about his book on Ireland’s response to the pandemic from the back room battles to the frontline heroes

CERTAIN to be among the bestsellers this Christmas, Richard Chambers’ A State of Emergency goes through the Irish experience of Covid-19, drawing on interviews with Taoisigh and high ranking ministers, members of NPHET, front line workers and the bereaved, among others.
Something of a celebrity journalist, the Virgin Media reporter spent most of his childhood in Lahinch and while Dublin-based now, is still a regular visitor to Clare.
“Myself, my mother and my brother moved down from Belfast to Lahinch when I was abut four years of age. I was there up until my early teenage years.
“I’ve always considered it to be my home county, you have those formative experiences, you fall in love with the GAA, there’s the sea in Lahinch, you’ve all of those early memories.”
Covid-19 has dominated every aspect of Irish life over the last two years, from business to religion, academia to sport, it has disrupted funerals and weddings, saw people lose their jobs and resulted in thousands of deaths.
The story of the pandemic is a broad one and when he received an approach to write the book in early 2021, he had to think hard about what to include.
“You kind of think if we do it, it’s going to be out this year, what stories do I need to tell? Obviously you want to do the behind the scenes, the nitty gritty of what was happening between Government and NPHET at a really crucial time for the country.
“What happened in the rooms when all these massive decisions were made? Obviously you want to focus on the frontline stories and give a flavour across the country of what was happening.
“It was a question of putting together as many different stories as possible to try and give as true a reflection of 18 months up unitl August of this year. Really just trying to capture all of the mayhem and the turmoil of everything.”

Research

Since the pandemic struck much of his work has involved covering the daily developments and the stories of those affected, but while he had some knowledge that was helpful, a huge amount of research was required.
“You’re only really as good as your interviews are and basically I conducted hundreds of hours of interviews, both Taoisigh, the CMO, multiple, multiple cabinet ministers and members of NPHET and the HSE. There are hundreds of hours of interviews gone into it.
“There’s a lot of stuff that I was surprised about, I was quite taken aback by how honest people were in it. The depth of feeling and frustration towards various people involved was quite shocking to me, the bluntness of some of the key operators.
“It’s a very, very raw account really of a lot of the stuff, which people might have suspected, but now they know for sure.”
The spring of 2020 was a frghtening time for most people, with mandatory closures of many businesses and strict limits on how far one could travel from home introduced, measures that had previously been almost unimaginable.
While there was a lot of anxiety among the public, behind the scenes there were a number of crises, with a huge shortage of PPE, and at times the country flirted with disaster.
“Speaking to people at a very high level in NPHET, there was a feeling that if they waited a day or two on certain decisions, or if people hadn’t taken the message to limit your contacts and social distancing, we could have ended up in a situation like Italy, or the UK and United States at different times, we could have hit a really different level of catastrophe. We’re very, very lucky that we didn’t.”

Clashing

After an improvement during the summer of 2020, case numbers began to rise and rise in the autumn, and towards the end of the year the relationship between the Government and those advising it had became more than a little frayed.
“There was a lot of talk throughout last year about tensions between Government and NPHET, but it was last October and in the run-up to Christmas that it really became something else.
“I think if and when there is a future inquiry into how the pandemic was managed there’s going to be a lot of focus on those months and the clashes between Government and NPHET and who was informed of what when.
“It really did all completely collapse in terms of communication as well as trust, there was a huge breakdown there.”
Famously Leo Varadkar appeared on TV after NPHET recommended a return to Level 5 restrictions and said that while members of the body were qualified in public health matters, none of them were going to have to go on the PUP if level five was introduced, nor would they have to tell anyone they were losing their job.
Clearly the relationship between the two sides was at a low ebb, and Richard says there is still some lingering bad feeling.
“I don’t think there was any recovery in that relationship between Government and key public health advisers until this year and even now those wounds are still open.
“If you talk to Government ministers about it and you’ll get a sense that they’re very unhappy with how that was handled. There are people in NPHET who feel that if the Government was more concerned with listening to their message last October and less concerned about how the message was delivered, we wouldn’t have had the situation last Christmas that we did have, which was so devastating to so many communities across our country.
“It’s very interesting that while on paper and publicly things have been repaired since then, there was that breakdown and those wounds are still there under the surface.”
Recently there were entirely contradictory messages coming from NPHET and Government, which surely didn’t do anything to reassure an anxious publc.
“I think you’ll notice communication really has been a poor point. Communication from a Government level and from a Department of Health level at times has been very patchy.
“The Chief Medical Officer said at a press conference that people should consider going back to working from home. The Health Minister said ‘oh, we’re not considering doing that’.
“The next day the message goes to Government and the cabinet sub committee is going to consider that. It does throw people off kilter. It becomes tougher to do your job as a journalist as well, because the messaging coming out is incredibly messy.”

On the frontline

Richard speaks in glowing terms about the frontline workers who continue to risk their own safety to treat Covid patients and he reflects many of their experiences in the book.
“If you’re going to do a book on Covid you want to reflect as accurately as possible the experience of our frontliners.
“These were the people who were at the coalface of it. What they were put through, and what people sacrificed so that other people might live and get out of hospital, it’s truly incredible. There are people in hospitals around the country who just battled and battled against the most difficult circumstances.”
While there have been some discussions about how their sacrifices might be acknowledged, he says the workers themselves need to be asked.
“If there is to be some sort of recognition or thanks to healthcare workers it’d be great to hear their voices and what they think might be appropriate.”
All of the research and all of the writing was done as Covid was still a live problem.
While writing it as the crisis was still continuing has denied him the advantages of hindsight, he believes that the timing also means that the accounts he has are more honest and more real.
“I think it was a good time to write it. If I did this in a few years’ time when we were through this, everybody had moved on, you wouldn’t have the same Taoiseach in position, a lot of people may have retired or moved on
“Also, whenever anybody leaves a job or looks back on a turbulent period in their life they ask themselves was it really that bad or was your man I used to work with really that bad. We all do that, it’s human nature.
“To get a truer reflection of what we were all going through and what things were like in those rooms, around the Cabinet table, at crunch NPHET meetings, you have to do it while people are in those jobs.
“Those relationships are real, those frustrations are still there. I also felt it was an appropriate time for people to start to begin that process of reflection.”
Over 8,000 lives have been lost on the island of Ireland due to Covid-19, and he says it is important to realise that there is a huge trauma around that, which sometimes gets lost in talk of case numbers and restrictions.
“More lives have been lost in the pandemic in Ireland than in the Troubles, the War of Independence or the Civil War. It’s a huge amount of loss of life. It is very difficult to unpack.
“Some stories of Covid will never be told because they are so personally wounding. You have multiple members of some family dying, communities losing multiple people, cornerstones of their community.
“It’s important we don’t lose sight of that human loss. So much of the pandemic, the conversation is about restrictions and working from home, about numbers and statistics.
“Behind every statistic, whether it’s a case, a life lost, a hospital admission or a job lost, there’s a person. This story is about people more than anything else.”
The psychological wounds will take years to heal, he feels, particularly in areas where many people were killed by the disease.
“For example, take a place like Belmullet in Co Mayo, there was a huge loss of life there in a small community, much like many communities in Co Clare. It’s extraordinary what people had to go through.”

Busy mornings

Conducting the interviews, transcribing them and producing some coherent writing all takes time and it made for a very busy number of months.
“You sort of get up at 5am, make a cup of coffee, you sit at the laptop screen,it’s a blank page and you ask yourself how is this ever going to work?
“You have to force yourself to do a couple of hours in the morning and if you have any energy and finish at a relatively decent time you might go home and do 40 minutes to set yourself up for the next day.
“It just has to get done, all of the leave for the year went into the book, it’s a tiring process, but Jesus, journalists have nothing to complain about when you look at the hours worked by our frontliners.
“It was an exhausting process but a rewarding one as well. The people you get to meet, the stories you get to tell, it was a huge privilege to be able to tell some of the personal stories, bring some people to life, and let people know some of the people behind Covid.”
Richard says he would like to write another book in the future.
“But maybe not for a couple of years!” he laughs.
Covid-19 is certainly not in the past, despite high vaccination rates here, and some restricitons have had to be reintroduced, along with a wider call for people to reduce their level of interactions.
“From speaking to people who know what they’re talking about, if it wasn’t for the Delta variant, we’d probably be in a situation where everything was hunky dory now for the most part.
“But it seems to be the case when you talk to people running the response that a few small changes in behaviour might be enough to see this wave turn around, and we all have to hope that.
“It has been shown in Ireland that once these things do flare up, behaviours do change very quickly and things can turn around quickly. We have to hope that happens before we end up in an emergency situation once again.”
It may still be too early to tell if Ireland’s response to Covid has been a success or not, and Richard is reluctant to make any judgement.
“It isn’t for me to say whether the country did well or not, or whether the Government did well or not. As a journalist I’ve presented a true reflection of what happened. It will be up to a future inquiry to sort of assess all of that.
“But this is as raw and true an account as there has been to date, there will be others to follow of course and they’re to be welcomed, to fill in that tapestry of what happened in this country.”
Not every aspect of the book will please everyone, but he says he hasn’t had any backlash from any of the players yet. Not that it would bother him if there was.
“The sort of contact I’ve received has been of the view that it’s a very accurate account. Some people won’t be happy but that goes with the territory.
“There were clashes and there were people who got on each other’s nerves, so you’re going to have people who are annoyed, there may be people in high places not delighted with how they are portrayed by other people in the book, but it’s not my job to be anybody’s friend, not my job to be the Health Minister’s friend or Tony Holohan’s friend, or anybody in the HSE’s friend.
“My job is to tell an accurate account and I feel happy that’s what’s been done here.”

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.