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Covid-19: Let’s hold our nerve if mini-spikes cast doubt on economy reopening

Caveat: Bespoke closures and rapid test and trace systems can handle a resurgence

A mobile Covid-19 testing booth in Israel: the country reopened much of its economy and its schools at around the first week of May. It recorded a mini surge of cases over the last two weeks; 1,700 in a fortnight compared to 1,200 for the month before. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

If everything goes according to expectations, Ireland may be immersed in a fresh national debate over the wisdom of ending lockdown in about one month’s time. That would fit the broad tempo shown in several other countries.

They reduced restrictions to save their economies, and roughly one month later there was enough fresh virus data for some to muse whether the easing was too much, too soon. The Republic needs to get ready for this conversation. When it happens, let us hold our nerve.

The Government began to move decisively over the past week to speed up the schedule for the unwinding of lockdown for solid economic reasons. Yet data from the ESRI last week suggested that the majority of people may not have objected if policymakers had kept plodding.

Just over half of those surveyed by the ESRI were satisfied with the old lockdown unwinding schedule. Just under one-quarter of people – the economically-pragmatic doves of the debate – thought it was too slow and cautious. But a similar slice of another 23 per cent – the hawks – were not merely satisfied with the old slow unwinding, they actually thought it was already too fast.

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The attitudes of the final cohort may be influenced more by fear than by reason. This is understandable as the virus can be a killer and none of us wants to die. But given how relatively extreme their position is – asserting that the slowest lockdown on the block was in fact not slow enough – they are not just the hawks of the lockdown winding debate. They seem more like the pterodactyls.

Their fear may drive them to swarm the skies screeching for a U-turn back to lockdown, just as soon as there is enough evidence to suggest that the easing of restrictions may have resulted in some more people catching the virus here.

In the Republic, that evidence is on its way. The experience of other countries appears to show the inevitability of lockdown unwindings causing pockets of increased infection. What is not inevitable is the response meted out to deal with those increases. It doesn’t have to be a panicked return to lockdown, nor does any increase in infections automatically prove that unwinding was wrong.

For all of May, the Germans played whack-a-mole with rising infection rates. But they didn't panic and return to lockdown

Scientists tell us there is up to a 14-day incubation period for the virus, after which the first stirrings of the virus caused by the extra activity shows up in data. Common sense tells us it may take another week or two for the various data points to coagulate enough to motivate hawks to find their voices. Add those timeframes together and there is your one month rough rule of thumb.

Reopened

Israel reopened much of its economy and its schools at around the first week of May. It recorded a mini-surge of cases over the past two weeks; 1,700 in a fortnight compared with 1,200 for the month before.

Health officials there have attributed the spike not to an unstoppable “second wave”, but to localised outbreaks associated with the reopening of schools. One particular school in Jerusalem is considered the epicentre. Health officials have also criticised some Israelis for becoming lax on social distancing, and one municipality there shut down a nightclub over the past week.

A few of the hawks are back out in Israel, but the government there is refusing to close down all schools again or to lock down the economy. It maintains that the outbreaks can be contained at a local level, with bespoke closures and rapid deployment of test-and-trace systems. They even have mobile testing booths on the streets of some Israeli cities.

Officials are moving to launch fresh campaigns to reinforce the vital message to the public that social distancing and hand washing are the best protections against the virus. Mask holdouts are also now routinely fined. Officials have also responded by delaying the return of Israeli train services, and have postponed the reopening of cinemas and arts venues. But that is a long way from cratering the entire economy again by rushing back into a blunt lockdown.

Even the economic doves here who wanted Ireland’s unwinding speeded up will have been uncomfortable watching how quickly certain US states reopened last month, even while the virus was still swirling freely in their communities.

Arizona is a “red state” where many view the lockdown as just another theatre for left versus right culture wars. It aggressively reopened its economy well over a month ago. It is now in the grip of a clear virus resurgence. Texas and Florida are not far behind.

Communist plot

But was this an inevitable consequence of reopening their economies? Or was it the result of pent-up complacency from people who always viewed lockdown as some sort of communist plot, and who stubbornly went back to performative close contact with each other just as soon as they were let out their front doors? Georgia, for example, also reopened its economy at roughly the same time. It hasn’t experienced the same virus resurgence. Nobody seems to know why.

California has experienced it, but to a lesser degree. But it seems localised there with Los Angeles and its packed beachfront bars faring worse than San Francisco.

For all of May, the Germans played whack-a-mole with rising infection rates. But they didn’t panic and return to lockdown. They held firm and the overall curve is now going in the right direction again.

Comments this week from the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar seem to suggest that the Government is prepared for mini-revivals in infection rates, and won't rush to lock down the country again if they emerge.

He told RTÉ’s 2FM that officials would try to deal with fresh outbreaks rapidly at local level, instead. If so, then that is good news for Irish businesses and the workers whose livelihoods depend upon them staying open.

There will be many bumps on the road ahead. Let us look out for them along the way, as well as economy-killing craters that may be signposted: “Safety in renewed lockdown, this way”.

Many good businesses may never emerge from that hole, if we step back into it.