Leading article

Executive leaders must present a united message on Covid

It is year since Robin Swann took on the ministerial portfolio no one else wanted.

Health has long been regarded as the most challenging department in government.

In January last year, when Stormont was restored after a three year hiatus, the most pressing issues were the industrial action over nursing pay and safe staffing, the urgent need for structural change and waiting lists that had spiralled to shocking levels.

No one imagined that a health crisis unprecedented in living memory was fast approaching, a global emergency that would test and stretch the most well resourced and scientifically advanced countries in the world.

Like most administrations, the executive has struggled to get control of the virus and to provide a clear, coherent and united message at all times.

Whatever the deficiencies of the communication strategy or the political point scoring that some have indulged in, there can be no doubting the commitment of Mr Swann to the task in hand.

Nor can anyone be in any doubt about the weight of responsibility he bears in his present role.

An interview with the Irish News health correspondent SeanĂ­n Graham yesterday provided a sense of the pressure he is under, how the daily email detailing the latest numbers on deaths and positive cases causes a 'deep intake of breath.'

Unfortunately, his job is even harder at present, in the midst of the extremely tough third wave of the pandemic.

The Ulster Unionist MLA commented that one of the things that worked during the first wave was the 'very strong symbolism' of the first and deputy first ministers standing side by side at a podium.

''When you're not giving the same messaging from the same platform, it's weakened,'' he said.

He is right, of course, and it is notable that yesterday, after a gap of several weeks, we saw a joint press conference by Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill.

This is a positive development and absolutely essential at a time when the health service is facing a dramatic spike in demand and traders are experiencing serious problems related to Brexit.

We need our leaders to be getting on with the important business of government but they also need to be visible, accountable and transparent in their decision-making process.

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Leading article