Reopening indoor dining was reasonable at the time, but it has backfired

Those of us who support protecting the economy must accept it has to take a backseat until upsurge is contained

The desire to be vindicated is a natural human impulse. Who doesn’t want to be proven right, especially on matters of public controversy? This holds true even during a rampaging pandemic.

The Government decided in December to reopen shops and indoor dining under social distancing rules, while also allowing more household mixing closer to Christmas. It diverged from Nphet’s advice to proceed more cautiously. Many other doctors and scientists also criticised the decision at the time, while many business lobby groups supported it to varying degrees.

The decision has been followed by a near-vertical surge in infection that threatens the health of our most vulnerable. Many of our family, friends and neighbours will get sick with Covid-19 this month and some will die. That solemn fact matters far more at this moment than a debate over the wisdom of the Government’s decision. But, as we are all human, that debate has inevitably arisen.

To properly judge the decision to diverge from Nphet’s advice on economic grounds, it must be considered within the context of the time at which it was made. Nphet’s street credibility at the time was not helped by the fact that the tough, six-week lockdown it sought for October and November had not produced anything close to the improvement in infection rates that was promised.


People were worn down. Amárach research for the State supports a conclusion that, at the time, more people accepted the decision to reopen than were dissatisfied that it was too risky. Despite suggestions to the contrary from the fonts of wisdom that populate social media, this appears, to me, to be incontrovertible. The data is on the Department of Health’s website; only one-third of people wanted deeper restrictions at the end of November. Dissatisfaction only came later as things unravelled.

Defending jobs

The Government made an understandable attempt to defend jobs and to make room to ease the pressure on people’s mental health. Even their most ardent critics would not argue that policymakers set out to harm people. If they do, they are not arguing in good faith. Politicians are not monsters. No human being with an ounce of integrity or compassion would have supported the reopening of the economy to the extent that it was if they had known, or had been warned, that it was going to contribute towards 5,000 cases per day by the first weekend of January. Nobody predicted this.

Shops are not a source of widespread infection and there is little credible evidence to show otherwise. The real issue at play here is the decision to reopen indoor dining. It is currently unclear to what extent this is directly responsible for the current upsurge, compared to people’s general irresponsibility while mixing at home and the as-yet-unknown impact of the more transmissible new UK variant of the virus.

I find it difficult to accept that 20 days of indoor dining alone is what has brought the country’s health infrastructure to its knees. Nphet suggests the new UK variant may be responsible for just 10 per cent of cases, but this is based on a tiny sample. It seems incongruous to me to suggest that the new variant that is ravaging our nearest neighbour, with which we have inextricable physical links, is not also a major factor here. But people better qualified than me will settle that argument later on.

The extent of hospitality’s culpability for the current situation has never really been reflected in cluster data. But, given the risks associated with people mixing indoors without masks, clearly it has played some role and perhaps even a major one. Only a one-eyed ideologue would deny this. I supported the decision to reopen indoor dining because I felt compelled to speak up for the tens of thousands of workers and SME owners whose livelihoods were being thrown onto a bonfire by restrictions designed or supported by people on full salaries, working from home, who faced no such economic insecurity.

It is probably fair to say that many people, perhaps even most, might have accepted in November the continued closure of indoor dining through December if was sold to them as a critical move by the Government.

But there is such a thing as the tyranny of the majority. There is little evidence that the majority who were unaffected by the continued closure of hospitality had much difficulty with it. There is plenty of evidence that the tens of thousands of people directly affected and their families were being harmed by it. Those people were not alright, Jack. My sense of compassion for them remains undimmed, even now.


But it is obvious that the decision to reopen indoor dining has contributed in some way to what is happening now. Therefore, with the benefit of hindsight, you can argue that the decision to reopen all indoor dining as early as December 4th may have been the wrong one. It must then follow that I, along with many others, may have been wrong to support it. I have personally felt the sting of grief from Covid-19 and I wish it on nobody, and certainly not as the price of a night out.

Economic considerations will return later, but for the moment, they must take a back seat. The time has come for all of us to accept that we are in crisis mode and strain with every sinew to once again crush the curve of infection and protect the health and lives of those around us. To do anything now that would risk further public health damage would be an act of gross moral irresponsibility.

The economy must wait a while until this crisis has been contained. If it is not contained, the economy will be ruined anyway through a collapse in public confidence. Those of us who worry about the economy cannot shirk this.

So what do we do after that? We might muddle through until vaccines take over. There is also a renewed push by proponents of a “zero Covid” policy to ape the approach of Australia and New Zealand. This means taking the pain of a long draconian lockdown, and effectively sealing the nation’s borders insofar as that can be done, to eliminate community transmission and “return to normal”.

I do not accept that sealed borders can be described as anything close to normality for a small, open economy that relies on foreign trade and investment, and which is part of a single market with 26 other nations that we know will be taking a different approach.

Ireland would be an outlier in the European Union. The fiscal and economic risks of outlier status for a small nation like ours cannot be just wished away. Those risks do not exist to the same degree in Australia and New Zealand.

But while we’re crushing the curve anyway over coming weeks, there is time for us to ventilate these issues further. Let us have this discussion, calmly, and in the knowledge that the impending arrival of vaccines means that, whatever is decided, we will not be lost forever in this pit of despair.