You are here: Home > News & Events > Policy Lessons From The Pandemic: New NESC Council Report

Policy Lessons From The Pandemic: New NESC Council Report

Learning from Covid-19: Pinpoint Vulnerability and Target Actions

New research from the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) reviews international experience, looks at examples of Ireland’s response to the pandemic, and identifies lessons from Covid-19 for public policy.

The NESC report – The Covid-19 Pandemic: Lessons for Irish Public Policy – is not a performance assessment exercise. It highlights ways that public policy in the future can be improved.  NESC Director Larry O’Connell believes that lessons from the pandemic can help shape Ireland’s response to crises in such areas as climate change and biodiversity loss, in housing, in responding to the terrible events in Ukraine, and in dealing with the current cost-of-living crisis.

Lesson One is that vulnerability is complex and context-specific, and that we must continue to work hard to pinpoint and manage vulnerability.  Dr Cathal FitzGerald, who led the research, says that during Covid-19, the policy system invested considerable effort and resources to address vulnerability.  For example, the Community Call programme linked local and national government with the community and voluntary sectors in providing support to the most vulnerable. ‘Community Call shows the effort required to respond to the complex and, in many respects, hidden nature of vulnerability. It is not surprising that previously unknown pockets of isolation and disadvantage came to light’.  Looking ahead, the State can support local, bottom-up, exercises, often driven by community groups and experts to pinpoint vulnerabilities. This needs to be then linked to national level’ he said.  ‘It is also evident that responding to revealed vulnerabilities requires resources. Some countries have established buffer capacity, and the Council believes it is prudent that the policy system take the time now to consider security of supply and to determine where excess capacity is needed and sensible’ he stated. Dr FitzGerald said that greater use of data could allow more targeting of supports to ensure that the most vulnerable receive them and to maximise the value of public investment.

Lesson Two is that deep engagement with stakeholders, social partners, and experts has been critical, and needs to continue as we work to build consensus and meaningful action on other challenges.  ‘When the pandemic emerged, the policy-system engaged with experts in a range of fields- employers, industry associations, trade unions, and other stakeholders. This helped frame the guidance and rules, to get greater clarity about costs and benefits’, Dr FitzGerald said. ‘Representative organisations were directly involved in discussions around measures to protect vulnerable enterprises and employees. This contributed to their effectiveness because they were underpinned by consensus, and stakeholders actively championed new initiatives. This collaboration deepened as attention focused on safely re-opening the economy and society’, he stated. ‘While this revived form of policy interaction was effective in dealing with labour market issues during the crisis, the Council believes the type of societal consensus and trust necessary to address other complex challenges requires a more inclusive form of social dialogue’.

Lesson Three is that the real-time data-gathering and analytics capability and infrastructure was key to the policy response on Covid-19 and this work should now be used to support decision-making in other areas. ‘From the onset of the pandemic the State had a significant data and research resource which helped guide its decision-making and actions. The addition of more aggregate data and behavioural analytics helped policy-makers better understand how the disease and the population were behaving, and the relationship between them’ Dr FitzGerald said.

For example, real-time aggregate data on traffic volumes helped reveal whether rising Covid case numbers were impacting social activity. Data on the aggregate volume of internet searches for terms such as ‘covid test’, ‘common cold’, ‘cough’, and ‘fever’ provided value as potential early indicators of a disease peak.

The Social Activity Measure (SAM) introduced by Government provided a more complete, real-time picture of how people were responding, as well as their attitudes to restrictions, what was working well, and what might need to be adjusted at a given point in time. ‘It is clear to the Council that the systematic use of aggregate empirical and behavioural data in public policy has the potential to add enormous value in complex policy areas such as housing or climate action policy, so care should be taken about dismantling processes and infrastructure that have been put in place’.

Lesson Four is that data governance, privacy, access, confidentiality, and sharing issues must be prioritised and addressed with urgency.  ‘While it is true that real-time evidence and data can transform policymaking’, Dr FitzGerald said, ‘the policy system must address some well-known challenges and risks’. The data and behavioural analytics employed during the pandemic was aggregate and based on non-personal identifiable information’, he said. ‘Transparency and inclusion are key, and Ireland must ensure that the public policy system itself has fully adapted to the data world’.

Lesson Five is that the policy system developed many means of listening to citizens, stakeholders and experts, and that these provide insights for how to further build trust in Government.  Steps were taken during the pandemic to enhance communication and bolster trust. Within days of the first confirmed case of Covid-19 here, a dedicated Crisis Communications Group was established. Communications were informed by deep engagement with stakeholders and experts, and data and behavioural analytics work. There was also evidence of good practice emerging in relation to multilingual and more readable crisis communication. The Council believes that these steps could be beneficial as Ireland continues to be exposed to emergencies. ‘Building on this, policy-makers must improve their capacity to listen actively, and to communicate clearly. They must also work to ensure their decisions deliver, and are seen to deliver, for society’, the Council argue.

Dr FitzGerald stated that Ireland’s response to the pandemic has revealed new ways of working in the policy system. ‘There has been a significant shift in policy approach during the pandemic: a willingness to step-in, flexibility, and agility. These qualities can and must be fostered and supported in the policy system outside of crisis-periods’, he said.


  • The Council’s report in full can be found here.
  • A summary document of the main lessons and suggested responses can be found here.
  • A background report ‘Managing Emergencies and Disasters: A Review of Key Literature’ can be found here.


Note to Editors:  The research was undertaken by the National Economic and Social Council, an independent Council comprising employers, trade unions, farmers, community and voluntary sector representatives, environmentalists, senior officials from Government departments, plus independents.  The Council was set up to analyse and report on strategic issues relating to the efficient development of the economy, the achievement of social justice and environmental sustainability.

For any queries contact Dr Cathal FitzGerald, Senior Analyst,

The National Economic and Social Council, 16 Parnell Square, Dublin, D01 E7C1.

Follow us @Nescireland