In six months we will be in the grip of a 1980s-style recession

The Government had little choice but to assume the worst and act accordingly

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and Dr Ronan Glynn leaving Government Buildings. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and Dr Ronan Glynn leaving Government Buildings. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Economically speaking, this is the quiet before the storm. In six months we will be in the grip of a 1980s-style recession in which about 300,000 workers will “permanently” lose their jobs. That’s not some dire warning from a Dracula economist, that’s the assessment of Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, who has been briefing party colleagues and potential coalition partners to that effect for several weeks. Thousands of consumer-facing businesses are also likely to go to the wall when the cost of not trading for several months combined with new social-distancing norms are brought to bear. Containing the virus has come at a hefty price and we’re about to pay it.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to ask whether we could have avoided such a wholesale shutdown of the economy. Particularly when we’re unlikely to deploy the same tactic again. A second wave will be dealt with via aggressive testing and tracing.

Investment bank JP Morgan recently published a research note assessing the virus R0 rates (the rate at which infections are transmitted between people) in each US state as lockdowns were lifted. It showed that in almost all US states infection rates declined, not increased, after lockdowns ended.

The report concluded that the virus had its own “dynamics unrelated to often inconsistent lockdown measures that were being implemented”.

The evidence suggested that “common sense measures unrelated to full lockdowns”, such as social distancing and hand-washing, were more effective in containing the virus.

Moving parts

Epidemiology is a complex business with many moving parts and this is just one report.

Nonetheless it presents the possibility that there may have been space between social distancing and lockdown in which to curtail the virus while limiting the economic fallout.

The problem for Ireland and most other western countries is that we failed to see the threat for what it was when it first emerged in China, preferring instead to point out Beijing’s failings.

Amnesty International issued a report that noted “censorship, harassment and punishment for speaking out are hindering the fight against the coronavirus outbreak”. The Washington Post proclaimed the “outbreak shows the vulnerability of ‘the Chinese model’ ”.

By the time it hit these shores and the dangerously subtle mode of transmission through asymptomatic carriers was laid bare, there was no time to put in place an aggressive testing infrastructure. We had also failed to adequately stock up on reagent for mass testing.

But even if the Government here had opted for strict social-distancing protocols over lockdown, would we as a population have adhered to them? For many of us, it was the sudden fright of lockdown that woke us up to the threat.

And while we praised ourselves for abiding by the rules initially, adherence has unravelled spectacularly in recent weeks.

If we think back to the situation in late February and early March, it was extremely fluid, with horrific scenes in Italy and the advice and modelling pointing to a huge spike in cases. The Government had little choice but to assume the worst and act accordingly. JP Morgan’s report acknowledges that lockdowns were justified on the basis that politicians had little reliable data at the time.

Models incorrect

So the lockdown was overkill but justifiable overkill in an information vacuum. The models were predicting infection rates well beyond what the healthcare system could cope with, but they proved wrong.

The Health Service Executive predicted that those requiring acute care would peak at just under 3,000 on April 11th, according to a document seen by the Sunday Times. The actual peak was 880 for five days from April 10th.

The irony is that some big lapses of judgment ran alongside the Government’s proactive lockdown stance. Allowing flights in and out of Italy when the virus was self-evidently rampant in Lombardy and surrounding regions was perhaps the biggest.

The first six reported cases here all involved people who had come from northern Italy.

Not pulling Irish involvement in the Cheltenham racing festival in mid-March was another. How our participation in an event involving 250,000 spectators in the midst of a pandemic was green-lit when the Government was planning a major crackdown on domestic activity is hard to fathom.

There is an unconfirmed report that two racegoers on their return may have infected more than 100 people in a pub in Killarney.

Learning curve

Another threat not properly apprehended was the risk to elderly people in care homes.

In contrast to advice from Nursing Homes Ireland in mid-March that visits to nursing homes should be stopped in response to an increase in cases, the National Public Health Emergency Team deemed visitor restrictions unnecessary at that time.

More than half of the victims of the pandemic here have been nursing home patients.

But hindsight is easy and Government was making decisions at speed. Not all of them were going to be right. Also the disease is now under control thanks to the concerted efforts of policymakers, healthcare professionals and An Garda Síochána.

Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, said last week that the Republic no longer had “sustained widespread community transmission”.

The reason why Asian states such as Taiwan and South Korea reacted so swiftly in closing their borders, imposing restrictions and rolling out testing and tracing infrastructures was in part because of their previous experience with Sars, which was largely exclusive to Asia. Europe and Ireland are still on a learning curve.

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