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Fintan O’Toole: We had zero Covid and we blew it

Government’s dogged denial of danger posed by international travel remains bewildering

If the virus was crushed in Ireland, it could return only if it was brought back in from somewhere else. This isn’t xenophobia or paranoia. It’s just logic. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Last week, we got definitive proof of what common sense had long suggested but official policy tried to deny. Ireland managed almost to eliminate the coronavirus in the first lockdown. But it lost the benefits of that triumph because it allowed new variants to come in from abroad.

Also last week, we got the news that 2,000 people arrived in Ireland from Brazil, where a dangerous new variant is raging, over a 28-day period in January and February. 

This, in a rather nasty nutshell, is the story of the last year in Ireland’s struggle against the pandemic.

The first wave did not come back. What happened, rather, was that the second wave was allowed to come in

What was achieved between last March and June 2020 was remarkable. But this achievement was squandered because the Government could not get its head around the idea that, in order to sustain it, international travel would have to be severely curtailed. 

This is the great mystery of the last year: why was something so obvious so hard to grasp? And why, when it was grasped, is it still so hard to do what has to be done? Why, even now, has quarantine not been implemented and why is it unlikely to be so before the end of March?

The broad story of the virus in Ireland is told in a scientific paper produced by a team led by Paddy Mallon, professor of microbial diseases at UCD and infectious diseases consultant at St Vincent’s Hospital.

The researchers sequenced the genomes of Covid-19 variants found in 225 patients in four Irish hospitals during the first wave (March to June) and the second wave (July to December). What these genomes tell is two starkly different stories – of success followed by failure.

The success is really impressive. There was nothing perfect in Ireland’s response to the first wave of the pandemic, and there is little doubt that many lives were lost unnecessarily in nursing homes and residential institutions.

But the first variant of the virus was almost completely eliminated. Effectively, by June, cases that had descended from the form of Covid that burst out in Italy in January 2020, had “disappeared”.

But by July, we were letting in a whole new “lineage” of the virus, one derived from an outbreak in Spain. The scientific analysis “points to multiple introductions of this lineage into Ireland from overseas, in particular from the United Kingdom”.

To put it in cruder terms: we had zero Covid and we blew it. 

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The first wave did not come back. What happened, rather, was that the second wave was allowed to come in.

As Prof Mallon put it last week: “What this study shows is if you get your cases as low as we did, in effect you have the ability to eliminate those variants from the country, and if you get the cases that low, your main threat comes from travel.” 

Proving what happened has taken a great deal of detailed genomic analysis. But anticipating it just took common sense. If the virus was crushed in Ireland, it could return only if it was brought back in from somewhere else. This isn’t xenophobia or paranoia. It’s just logic.

At Dublin Airport, the passenger locator forms were on small tables that everyone crowded around. The biros were shared

And yet, the Government doggedly refused to grasp this logic. Not just the Government either – most of the political class (with the exceptions of the Social Democrats, People Before Profit/Solidarity and a few Independents) pushed for even fewer restrictions on foreign travel than were already in place.

I wrote on September 1st about my own experience of coming back into Ireland from a short work trip to England two weeks earlier. It was farcical.

At Dublin Airport, the passenger locator forms – you couldn’t yet fill them out electronically – were on small tables that everyone crowded around. The biros were shared.

I did my 14 days of self-isolation, but nobody ever called to check. This was the typical experience: fewer than a quarter of people who filled out passenger locater forms between August and November received follow-up calls to confirm they were restricting their movements.

Those restrictions were, in effect, nothing more than a pretence. This became explicit in September, when Ryanair sued the State to have them removed.

The broad political consensus was not that international travel should be very severely limited but that what we really needed was much more of it

The State argued, and the courts accepted, that Ryanair had no case because the measures had no legal standing at all. They were “merely advisory… and are not binding in nature”.

Even the pretence, though, was too much for the aviation industry. Michael O’Leary continued to rant against the measures. 

In more measured tones, but perhaps to greater effect, Donal Moriarty of Aer Lingus argued that “no one should feel any shame for travelling internationally. Government must now recognise it has a key role in influencing consumer confidence, and moreover, that a very significant increase in safe international travel is critically required to enable economic recovery in 2021.”

On November 12th, Nphet warned that “progress made during the Level 5 restrictions could be compromised by importing cases through international travel” – exactly what, as the genomic study shows, was already happening by then.

Yet the broad political consensus was not that international travel should be very severely limited but that what we really needed was much more of it.  

In December, even as the virus was again getting out of control in Ireland, the Oireachtas transport committee called for the Government to “develop a clear strategy to safely increase levels of international travel in 2021” and “encourage consumer confidence with respect to air travel”.

This was endorsed by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Greens, Labour and Sinn Féin. Fianna Fáil’s Cathal Crowe said that the “mantra” of permitting only essential travel “has to change”. Sinn Féin transport spokesman Darren O’Rourke said there was a “real opportunity to expand the scale of foreign travel and reconsider the public health advice”.

It is hard to avoid the sense in all of this that doing what needed to be done was just too much damn trouble

This madness was encouraged by an insistence that international travel was a very small factor in infections in Ireland. This has been a particular refrain of Leo Varadkar. As recently as January 29th, he was warning that restricting international travel was not “a silver bullet” as “less than one per cent of cases could be attributed to international travel.”

This was wilfully to miss the point. It may be true that only a small number of cases could be directly traced back to a particular person who had travelled from abroad. (Though in fact the tracing is not detailed enough to show this.) The real issue was and is that, having once eliminated the virus, Ireland was reseeding it over and over by importing new – and in many cases more dangerous – variants. 

It is not too harsh to say that the political system as a whole – with those honourable exceptions – tacitly agreed to ignore this truth.

It is hard to avoid the sense in all of this that doing what needed to be done was just too much damn trouble. It meant offending the aviation and tourist industries. It meant getting the act together to impose and police proper restrictions, including mandatory quarantining. It meant forging joint strategies with Belfast and London. Easier to pretend that international travel was not an issue.

There is, in the end, bad news and good news from the last year. The bad news is that we let slip a golden opportunity. The good news is that, having eliminated Covid-19 once, we can, with the right policies, do it again.

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