Stalled progress suggests Varadkar was right in Claire Byrne interview

Caveat: Tánaiste’s concern about what happens if lockdown doesn’t work proving valid

As it becomes apparent that the Level 5 lockdown is not yet working to the extent that public health officials and the Government had hoped, it doesn’t take Mystic Meg to detect the emergence of discord in the policymaking camp as the deadline for reopening looms.

That is always a risk when a Plan A appears to stall and there is no clear Plan B.

The Irish Times' political team reported on Thursday about clashes between Government officials and Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, over the details of the plan to emerge from Level 5 restrictions at the start of next month.

If that divergence becomes a chasm that affects the clarity of decision-making, businesses in retail and hospitality will pay a price in the form of muddled advice. This is why Ibec, the employers’ lobby group, was so exercised this week in its letter to Ministers pleading for a decisive approach.

It would be more concerning, however, if there were no rows, as that would mean the State’s essential economic needs were not even being considered at the decision-making table. Any fair assessment also should take into account that such disagreements are being forged in the heat of the biggest public health battle Ireland has fought in more than 100 years. It should be a little fiery.

It is worth casting an eye back just over six weeks ago when the first signs of discord between the Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), chaired by Holohan, emerged over Nphet’s initial attempt to bounce Ministers into a four-week Level 5 shutdown.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar gave a now infamous television interview to RTÉ broadcaster Claire Byrne in which he eviscerated Holohan's rationale, before relenting two weeks later and agreeing to a shutdown for six weeks.

Varadkar later justified his U-turn on the basis that daily infection rates had continued to accelerate, a reasonable rationale. It’s also reasonable to suspect that he may have been partly motivated to change his mind by the knowledge that, if the virus had spun out of control, he would be forever remembered for that combative interview and blamed for any health disaster that followed.

After he changed his mind, the public narrative coalesced around a vague notion that Varadkar was too hasty when he raised concerns over a move to Level 5, and that he was wrong to say what he said that night.

But was he, really? Let’s remind ourselves of his complaints about the then-proposed four-week move to the strictest tier of restrictions, and compare that to where the State is now, just over four weeks into the latest round of restrictions. He doesn’t seem too far wrong from this vantage point.

Varadkar complained that there was no evidence that a Level 5 lockdown, which has put hundreds of thousands of people out of work, would be “enough”, although he didn’t define what enough might be. He asked a reasonable question about what would happen if Level 5 didn’t sufficiently drive down virus numbers.

As the decline in the infection numbers has stalled over the last week and the daily rate has settled between 350 and 450 new cases, Varadkar’s thesis looks like it may be about to be tested.

Some public health experts have suggested in recent days that the decline in the daily rate may have stalled temporarily due to the schools’ midterm break and the celebrations around Halloween. We can still hope that it turns out to be the case and the downward trajectory resumes to some degree.

But what if it doesn’t?

Varadkar said on Claire Byrne Live that, if progress under lockdown stalled, the State would have to make a choice between “abandoning the process or proceeding regardless”. Nphet, he argued, hadn’t “contemplated” that situation. Unless the current situation improves, it looks as if it may need to contemplate it soon.

Ministers, including Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, have suggested there is "no appetite" for extending the Level 5 restrictions beyond December 1st, regardless of whether there is further improvement or not. Economic lobbyists, meanwhile, are up in arms.

The point is that Varadkar seemed to anticipate six weeks ago that a lockdown might not work as well as hoped and that the public’s support for it could wane, whereas Nphet didn’t appear to have considered that as a real issue at all. The public health advisers seemed prepared to junk the economy for a month or more because they were apparently so sure that it would be worth it. But the current situation suggests Varadkar may have been correct to raise his concerns.

While some friction between the Government and Nphet might actually be a good thing in helping to find the right balance between public health concerns and the economy, it does have one major downside – it gives a licence to the cranks among us who are only too gleeful to lambaste everybody else for laxity in adhering to the what is among the strictest anti-virus regimes in Europe.

Here, Nphet has made some clear errors. For example, Holohan's deputy, Ronan Glynn, was, I believe, ill advised this week to speak publicly about a supposedly "selfish minority" that a few cranks then sought to blame for the stalling of progress on case numbers.

Glynn was responding to the latest in a long line of behaviour-shaming videos on social media, which this time showed people drinking takeaway pints outside in small groups, albeit all on the same street, in Dublin.

The self-righteous sensed the nod from above and had a field day, even though there is no significant risk attached to outdoor drinking in small groups, and the video was too recent for the behaviour it captured to be a factor in the trajectory of virus numbers that we are now seeing.

A certain amount of human failure should be expected in any coherent strategy. So let’s not burn our fellow citizens at the stake for their failings just yet. There is also still a week-and-a-half to go of the Level 5 restrictions and the hope that a modicum of progress may resume has not yet evaporated completely. Then, it will be time to reopen the economy again, and also to hold our nerve.