Gavan Reilly: Why did it take so long to rule out mandatory jabs?

I’ll admit this is a curious note to open a politics column on, but: I was reminded yesterday of an incident a few years back, where a British daily newspaper was reporting the imminent departure of Wayne Rooney from Manchester United. It was a time when Rooney was going through a typically ropey patch of form, and there were always suggestions that he was unhappy at Old Trafford.

The story first emerged when the front and back pages of the British papers were shared on Twitter at around 10pm on the night before publication. That’s not the remarkable bit about the story: what’s more remarkable is that United were so keen to dismiss the story as utter conjecture and pure speculation, that a statement was issued within minutes. Not only that, but Rooney himself took to Twitter to say it too.

It was an interesting case study in how quickly it’s possible to put a story to bed. A rumour emerges at 10pm; by 10:45pm both the club and the player had commented to affirmatively dismiss it as untrue.

By the time people had even got to see the hard copy of the newspaper, its contents had been long since debunked.

This example came to mind again yesterday when dealing with the story - first reported by the Irish Times, based on the published minutes of NPHET meetings - that the country’s public health advisors were contemplating the idea of mandatory vaccination, and a possible recommendation that jabs be compulsory for the public-at-large.

This would naturally be a major, major change in Irish public health policy. Never before has Ireland ever made it compulsory to receive a medicine or any health product (people will argue about fluoride in water supplies, but if you don’t want fortified water you can source your own).

What’s more, although other countries are already tinkering with the idea - Italy now mandates jabs for the over-50s, and Austria wants to do it for everyone - Ireland would find it harder to justify any such law because the constitution here recognises the idea of bodily autonomy. Nor can either of those countries can match Ireland’s vaccination rate of 94% for adults.

So you’d think that when the national paper of record reports the idea of public officials examining mandatory vaccination, the government would be quick to speak out. Was it open-minded to the premise, willing to consider picking that fight? Or would it simply dismiss the idea as a political Rubicon nobody would cross?

Yet queries to spokespersons for the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health, or indeed anyone else in government didn’t yield any equivocal response. The former simply pointed out that Micheál Martin was always a supporter of voluntary vaccinations - which isn’t definitive enough, given Micheál Martin also said last April he would never consider using vaccination certificates for any domestic services, and we know how that turned out.

But it took until nearly 3pm for the Taoiseach to venture in front of a microphone in Cork to quell what was already a nasty uprising in some corners of the internet, telling the 220,000-or-so unvaccinated adults that the Government would not seek to medicate them against their will.

Eight hours might not seem like very long to nip the story in the bud, but in 2022 when information moves quickly, it was an age.

Eight hours is more than long enough to ferment even further scepticism among those who think Covid is the power grab of a generation, and who have total distrust in Government and NPHET. There simply was no need to wait.