If lockdown has morphed from tactic to strategy, the State has failed

It’s time to discuss a new strategic approach that doesn’t require trashing society and the economy

Seven months is not long, but it is a lifetime in a pandemic. Those whose businesses have been mothballed and livelihoods whipped away should take solace from that this weekend, as we re-enter lockdown and fret about the future. Things change quickly and the lockdown strategies held up as immovable orthodoxy now may not be considered such orthodoxy by spring. Hang in there.

Seven months ago, on the third Friday in March and as coronavirus ravaged Italy, chief medical officer Tony Holohan went onto the Late Late Show to soothe a worried nation. He said a lockdown was not necessary in Ireland and infection rates should slow quickly.

At that stage, social distancing and hand washing were the only weapons the State deemed necessary to contain the virus.

“What we’re trying to emphasise is, if most of the people in the population follow most of measures we’ve recommended, most of the time,” said Holohan, “if they follow those measures, we think that can have the effect of interrupting the chains of transmission”.


Looking back, it all sounds so quaint. A week later, Ireland entered a particularly harsh lockdown. It was the correct decision in the circumstances.

Almost three months later, in the second week of June, as exhausted citizens were still finding their feet during a painfully slow and therefore divisive economic reopening, Holohan went on RTÉ radio to declare that the State would not resort to lockdown again to fight a second wave.

Second wave

“I wouldn’t be anticipating at this point in time that we would be moving back to blanket closures in the way we did in March,” he said. “If a resurgence of the disease happened or a second wave, we would know what specific measures to take, having done our work proactively.”

Four months later, and it seems lockdowns are not just a part of the plan. They are the plan.

The imposition of economically and morale-draining rolling shutdowns now seems to be the only strategy for controlling the virus in which the public health authorities and the Government have faith. Either that, or else lockdown is the only anti-virus strategy that they are capable of implementing.

Holohan appeared on the RTÉ Radio’s News at One on Tuesday to defend his advice, which was accepted by the Government, to once again shut down most of the economy, put another 150,000 people out of work and suspend basic civil liberties, such as venturing farther than 5km from home.

Never in the history of this State have such draconian restrictions on everyday movement been imposed on citizens. How did we ever become as blithe about this as we are now?

In his radio interview this week, the chief medical officer gave no hope to anyone seeking hints of the emergence of a new approach. He hinted at the possibility of using lockdown as a rolling tool to see how long the Government can “get out of” each one. He was unequivocal in asserting that he would advise to State to do it again in future “whenever it is necessary”.

The Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, who enacted the decision that gave life to Holohan’s advice, has also been candid this week in signalling that the State has no strategy for controlling the virus other than going in and out of lockdown. Martin has his critics but his human decency is not doubted by anyone who thinks seriously about Irish politics. He felt he was just being straight with people.

Another interpretation is that he personified the State’s staggering lack of ambition and competency in building the public health structures necessary to protect people while avoiding the worst of the economic restrictions. The collapse last weekend of the contact tracing system is proof that the State may simply be incapable of moving with sufficient speed and expertise in such situations.

If contact tracing had been able to move with sufficient speed – say, under 24 hours – towards the end of the summer, would the second wave have been seeded to the extent that it was? If the tracing system is no longer fit for purpose, what else has been botched in the State’s anti-virus armoury?

Stripping responsibility

Letting so many thousands of contacts of confirmed cases of infection slip through the net may prolong this lockdown, according to Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail on Wednesday on Virgin Media's Tonight Show with Matt Cooper. Such failure cannot be ignored. Consideration should be given to stripping responsibility for the system away from the HSE, which has to fight a war on two fronts by also treating the sick.

The Government ought to examine vesting responsibility for testing and tracing in a new, standalone State agency with its own governance structures and board of directors, including independent directors from the fields of medicine, technology and science who have been critical of the HSE’s approach all along.

It could purchase operational services from the HSE while it is being set up. But give it its own budget and freedom to expand labs, hire tracing staff, set targets, liaise with schools and businesses, and account for itself publicly instead of hiding in the foliage of the HSE.

The most galling part of the decision to trash the economy and society with a second lockdown is that, in the circumstances that persist, it may be the wisest thing to do.

It feels like such a self-inflicted wound. But in the absence of the necessary public health structures to stay on top of the virus, what else can the State do at this moment? Let it rip? It was out of control. That cannot be ignored.

However, that is not the same thing as believing that accepting rolling lockdown is correct as a strategy. The State appears to have wasted the last shutdown and the summer lull in virus infection that followed.

It would be a failure of governance if it doesn’t at last try to come up with a better plan this time round. Implicit in any new strategy must be an admission that the old one has failed. That may require some humility from all concerned.