Only a fool would declare final victory over Covid-19, the gnarliest, most wily and vicious threat Irish society has faced in decades. This week’s public health data shows a still-improving picture two weeks after reopening everything, suggests that, barring disaster, we have seen the back of the ruinous hard restrictions that have dogged society and the economy since 2020.
Good riddance to them, too. Mandated travel limits, stay-at-home orders, business closures and limits on who we could meet and when were horrible for most people to endure, even if some among us seemed to grow comfortable with them at times. Economically, the toll was not evenly spread; the tourism and hospitality sectors, previously vibrant, will take years to recover.
During several acute stages of the crisis, hard restrictions were clearly necessary to prevent an even greater humanitarian disaster, something that an ideologically driven minority of lockdown opponents rarely acknowledged. If not lockdowns to combat the most lethal surges of the virus when the majority were unvaccinated, then what instead? Rage and wishful thinking?
Yet at times, notably last spring and summer after the first vaccination campaign, the Government was far too slow to whip away hard restrictions when infection rates would have justified it.
Some bouts of restrictions, such as last year’s barmy mandatory hotel quarantine experiment, will never be justified to many who value a liberal society. Beyond the devastating impact of the most lethal surges, I will look back on the introduction of mandatory hotel quarantine a year ago as the ugliest point of Ireland’s pandemic response, a moment when personal freedoms were too blithely junked to placate the Government’s opponents.
But those are old wars now. Virtually all restrictions have ended so debates over them mostly are moot. The sense from many medical experts is that a virus variant must emerge that is far fitter than Omicron as well as significantly more virulent to set us back, so hopefully restrictions won’t return anytime soon.
Among the last major illiberal impositions is the requirement to produce a European Union Digital Covid Certificate to avail of one of the bloc’s fundamental freedoms – the right to move across borders. This week, it was actually tightened such that certificates now become invalid for travel if it has been more than nine months since your second vaccine dose, and you are not boosted.
Given the fact that vaccinated people are also perfectly capable of, if not quite as likely to be, spreading the dominant Omicron strain of the virus as the unvaccinated, the logic of persisting with this measure from a scientific point of view is hard to fathom. The virus is approaching endemicity in all European countries anyway, so it is meaningless trying to keep it out at borders.
The measure exists now only as a tool to annoy Europe’s vaccine-hesitant into keeping up with their jabs. The certificates are of little benefit in Ireland, where most people have enthusiastically embraced vaccination because it is widely recognised as the game-changer, their introduction being the most important inflection point in the pandemic.
More than anything else, vaccines have done the heavy lifting to give people and businesses their freedoms back and that is recognised by the vast majority.
But persuasion of these facts has not yet landed with a significant minority in some European countries, such as Germany and others farther east, where a few even have unvaccinated majorities. So the EU certificates are here to stay for the foreseeable future and Ireland will just have to grin and bear it, for the sake of our EU bedfellows.
As a nation of curtain twitchers, a favourite past-time of Irish people of all hues in the pandemic has been to focus on what our neighbours are doing. Let’s be more like Sweden. Thank Christ we’re not Sweden. Can we be Sweden again? Why can’t we be more like the Finns? The Portuguese seem to have the right attitude, no it’s the Germans, and so on and on and interminably on.
But one country, comparable to Ireland, that appears to have largely kept its head screwed on in this pandemic is Denmark, which like this nation has also just lifted all its hard restrictions, and it did so even earlier than Ireland when viewed as a point on its Omicron curve.
Michael Bang Petersen, a Danish political scientist who is also an adviser to the Danish government, this week laid out his country's rationale for binning all hard restrictions even before its Omicron infections curve topped out. He said it had become plainly obvious that, although deaths and infections were still rising slightly, intensive care admissions were steadily falling. Meanwhile, he cites Danish studies that have shown that so-called long Covid in children is "rare and mainly of short duration".
“Throughout the pandemic, our data shows that the key worry of Danes is not their health but overwhelmed hospitals. In fact, in January the average Dane was more worried about lockdowns than their own health,” he said.
With the threat of overwhelmed hospitals clearly vanishing, the rationale for keeping any hard restrictions in place vanished along with it. So the Danes decided to open everything up and its government’s research shows that two-thirds of its population approved. There is no indication that opposition to reopening here is any more significant.
From the start, the rationale for hard restrictions was only ever about protecting the hospitals. It would have been an extraordinary case of mission creep if that justification had been allowed to shift to simply keeping as many people safe as possible. People no longer want their freedoms restricted and their livelihoods threatened simply to steer them clear of every last scrap of danger. They can do that for themselves.
If the worst happens and a dangerous new variant brings back calls for hard restrictions in future, then, yes, let’s remember what they helped us to endure and ask if they’re needed.
But similarly, let us never again be dismissive about what they cost: the €25 billion in business supports and unemployment payments that our children will have to pay back; gardaí stopping you on the street on the way to the shop; the lost freedoms; the economic destruction; the rancour and the bitterness.
Goodbye to all those horribly blunt anti-virus measures that we grew to know and hate. Don’t hurry back, now.