If tourists are such pariahs should we not be testing them on arrival?

Closing Ireland to countries that have the virus would mean being shut for a very long time

Masked passengers  at Dublin Airport earlier this month. Photograph: Colin Keegan

Masked passengers at Dublin Airport earlier this month. Photograph: Colin Keegan

 

Covid-19 has taught us many things, not least that the lens through which we see things is determined, in many places, less by the reason or science and more by ideology, culture and identity. In one or two countries, in contrast to tribalism, there is a demand for ideological purity: to challenge conventional wisdom is to become a social outcast.

Conventional wisdom isn’t all that conventional. The ways in which Britain, Ireland, Sweden and the US (and others) have reacted to the crisis reveals no consensus. Ireland seems scared witless by the virus notwithstanding its success at dealing with it thus far. Perhaps one requires the other.

In the UK, their daily numbers elicit horror from my Irish friends yet are greeted with relative insouciance by Britons. A small number of imported cases into Ireland are met with calls for tighter border controls. In the UK, there is a broad consensus that shutting borders will make little difference to whatever happens next. So they have no more or less fully reopened them. Time will no doubt tell.

Lockdown and travel bans, whether mandatory or voluntary, have meant tourism and everything related to it is decimated. Even without border restrictions, personal choices not to travel would, and will, cause massive problems. Listening to all the domestic expressions of deep concern about international travel, it is impossible not to wonder about the short and long-term consequences of all this. An all-Ireland approach that effectively closes the island, which is what I hear many medics are calling for, flies in the face not only of politics but also begs the question of for how long?

Alternate strategies

If the idea is to close Ireland to countries that have the virus we are going to be shut for a very long time. Just why there are no proposals for alternative strategies such as testing in the airport arrivals area is strange. Why not a mandatory test five or six days after that first test, with a shorter quarantine in between? “Because we want to stop 100 per cent not 95 per cent of the disease,” I hear some say.

At least one study finds that up to 95 per cent of Covid-19 cases have been caught indoors

They want a Covid-free island. That seems obvious to most people but sounds to me as practical as demanding no more traffic accidents or a tobacco or alcohol-free country. If international travellers are pariahs why are we not testing them?

The differences between countries suggest three main descriptions – chaos (the US), manage the disease (the UK) and eliminate the disease (Ireland). Each country also seeks to minimise the economic damage caused by the virus.

At least one study finds that up to 95 per cent of Covid-19 cases have been caught indoors. The culprits are crowded, poorly-ventilated places where people talk, shout and sing in each other’s unmasked faces for prolonged periods.

While the effects of heat and sunlight are still debated, it seems they can have an impact. Speculation about the role played by sealed, cold (air-conditioned) bars, restaurants and churches in the US sunbelt has led one investment bank to use restaurant openings as a predictor of future Covid flare-ups.

It’s probably not the beach that is the problem but the bar afterwards. Just why anyone would choose to sit in a pub is a mystery to me. As is the reopening of churches. Opening pubs before schools should have been shot down by the medics with more fervour than they devote to their campaign for sealed borders. Pubs before schools says much about our priorities.

Great sacrifice

To protect the vulnerable, we have demanded great sacrifice from healthy, mostly younger, people. If this ever comes to be seen as a false choice there will be an inter-generational reckoning.

This is a classic problem requiring cost-benefit analysis. Except it is, in the current climate, a one-sided calculus: focus is 100 per cent on the benefits and zero per cent on the costs. The latter isn’t just about economics or hard cash. That zero weight on the costs of our chosen strategy will be responsible for lives impaired or lost.

If our scientists believe the disease is unmanageable and, therefore, has to be eliminated, they should say so

Sweden is an example of the complexity of all of this and a grim reminder that simply letting the disease rip does not make your economy better. But it does not mean there are no alternatives to the policies both tried and promised.

Scientists differ. The study that prompted the UK lockdown was based on an assumed death rate that the WHO and some other scientists now think was nearly double what it should have been. Some scientists suggest herd immunity can be achieved with as little as 25 to 30 per cent infection rates provided the vulnerable are either ring-fenced or shielded. And those that get the disease will, for the most part, be relatively well-placed to deal with it.

Difficult choices

Policy requires difficult choices about explicit assumptions. If our scientists believe the disease is unmanageable and, therefore, has to be eliminated, they should say so.

An epidemiological model based on alternative assumptions and strategies would have not demanded total lockdown. Even if, given our state of readiness, lockdown was the correct initial policy, it does not automatically mean it should also be our next response to a second wave. The disease should be managed rather than eliminated. Wear a mask. Indoors.

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