Restarting Ireland: When and how will we ‘get back to normal’?

Optimists say July. Others September. We will return – gradually – to a much changed world

In China, normality is creeping back. Shops are reopening. People are returning to work. In Hubei, the worst-hit region, people who had not left their homes in six weeks were photographed last week stepping slowly back into the sunlight.

When can we expect normality to resume here? When our freedom returns, will we get it by degrees, or all at once? And what kind of country – what kind of world – will be waiting on the other side?

The answers for Ireland – as everywhere – depend largely on the curve. Whether it is steep or flat. When it peaks. How far it stretches. As the economist and Irish Times columnist David McWilliams puts it: "If this goes horribly wrong, if many more people die than our worst projections, if it doesn't go away in summer, and if we find that those who get it don't become immune, then all bets are off. The way we come out of this will be dictated by the way we get through this."

The interviewees and experts consulted for this article mostly envisage a more optimistic scenario – that social distancing will work; that cases will have subsided by early summer; and at some point after that, the work of restarting Ireland can begin.


What is clear from all of the discussions is that we should stop talking about “when things get back to normal”. The normal we knew is gone. And the return to a functioning society won’t be a flicking back on of a light switch, so much as a slow turning up of the dimmer.

Timeline: When does ‘the new normal’ begin?

"The word we should use is transition," says associate professor of economics at University of Limerick, Stephen Kinsella.

“There isn’t going to be a single day when you say, right, you can all go back to work,” agrees Danny McCoy, chief executive of Ibec. “We’re facing two separate crises. There’s the health crisis, and now there is an economic crisis. As you flatten one curve here, you’re actually exacerbating the other. So while we’re the flattening health crisis, the economic crisis is coming faster at us, we’re closing more things down.”

Before we get back to normality, says McWilliams, we’ll go through almost a “series of mini-pandemics. Because if we don’t do the herd immunity strategy, and if we try to save as many people as possible – which is what we should do – we’re into what the Americans call the ‘whacking the mole’ idea.”

Full normality can’t resume until there is a vaccine.

The "positive economist" Susan Hayes Culleton believes that the language about "getting back to normal" isn't helpful in any case. "It will drain people. They'll be waiting to go back, and it just won't happen," she says.

So what will a staggered return – that transition or “whacking of the mole” – look like in practice?

"Could you see construction sites going back and housebuilding recommencing over the next month or so? You possibly could," suggests Irish Times managing editor Cliff Taylor.

“Could you see coffee shops starting to reopen? Maybe. Pubs? Probably not in the short term.” There will be a much slower return to normal for large-scale events, Taylor believes.

Assuming the pandemic is a single peak phenomenon, Kinsella says, “I’m picking September 1st as the first day normality begins to resume, the day that schools and universities are on their way being reopened. Restrictions are effectively gone, other than travel to some countries. People are still sick, but the ICU system is not overwhelmed. The virus will be in its last stages.”

Economy: Austerity can’t be the light at the end of the tunnel

The big question for business and the economy then, says Kinsella, is "how long does it take a hotel in Tramore or a manufacturing company in Limerick to recover to where they were in February; to transition from the series of income and wage supports the State is providing?"

That process could take months or years. And “there will be a very strong lobby to continue some of the income supports; the childcare wage subsidy; the purchase of private hospital beds.”

Those demands may make tax increases inevitable. The tough politico-economic question for the government in charge for the 12 months from September, says Kinsella, is “how do you do all this without imposing austerity? I don’t think people are going to wear the idea that at the end of this period of national suffering, where they have lost their loved ones, their jobs and their freedom, that the light at end of this tunnel is austerity.”

Borrowing to meet those demands is not sustainable beyond after 12 months. Ultimately, the answer for the next government might lie in “credibility and expectations” – its ability to harness credibility by showing the public it can deliver on their expectations.

Society: A new form of social dialogue

Danny McCoy believes the headlines seen during the week of a record 330,550 people claiming unemployment benefit are leading to unnecessary panic. “We’re deliberately pushing up the unemployment rate. I don’t mean that’s our primary aim, but it’s an outcome of measures we’ve taken deliberately,” he says.

If an incremental return to work starts when the health crisis reaches its half-life, he believes “we will see the Irish economy pretty much in recovery mode by autumn 2020. The unemployment rate will have fallen by 10 percentage points again. It won’t be back to 5 per cent, but it will be somewhere around 10 per cent unemployment.”

The deficit should “go as high as it needs to go. It will be in the teens and higher – it can run to 10 per cent of GDP, which is €35 billion. It needs to be seen as the first stage of the recovery.”

The idea that you will reward hedge fund managers in multiples of how you reward nurses just won't wash

And at that point, “we need a new, much more sophisticated form of social dialogue about how we now reshape our economy for the future.” He points to Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine – the idea “that societies can do things when they’re shocked”.

If we tackle issues like Brexit and climate change, “2021 could be a spectacular year”.

The Ireland that emerges from this crisis will have “a much more social democratic future,” says McWilliams. “The idea that you will reward hedge fund managers in multiples of how you reward nurses just won’t wash. Taxes will rise. Public services will be much better off as a result.”

Working life: Will we want to keep working remotely?

The reality of “the remote working experiment” will kick in over the next few weeks, says Hayes Culleton. “As novelty turns into status quo, that’s when it’s going to be tested, and ultimately accepted.”

So will we want to hang onto the freedom and flexibility remote working allows, or will we want to get back to the workplace as soon as possible?

There's no clear consensus on this yet. Some, like McWilliams, believe the idea of an office is fundamentally outdated. "The office model of work is derivative of the factory floor. It owes its genesis to Henry Ford. The obsession with presenteeism is not driven by productivity; it's driven by control." Most people are happier not commuting, and working remotely, he thinks.

But others, like Kinsella, point out that remote working is not a panacea. For people in unhappy or controlling relationships, the office may have provided an escape. “There’s a significant confirmation bias [interpreting new evidence as confirmation of existing beliefs] at play” when people in the media talk about the benefits of remote working, he suggests.

Property and retail: A long-term reduction in demand?

A number of factors make it “unrealistic to provide definitive and detailed guidance on the impact of coronavirus for Ireland and its property markets,” Savills director of research, John McCartney, wrote in a note to investors last week.

Whether the new trends in how we work will have a long-term impact on the demand for office space depends on how it works in practice. “On one hand the concept may gain more widespread traction due to enforced working from home ... On the other hand the benefits of an office environment, in terms of collaboration and the immediacy of personal contact, may actually be proved by this crisis,” he suggests.

Kinsella predicts that employers “could well say, I’ve been paying rent on this giant, expensive shiny box for quite some time. It turns out that I don’t need to do this, because 80 per cent of what I used it for was actually done by you in your spare room.”

If that happens, McWilliams suggests, “commercial property prices will fall. Rents will fall. Highly leveraged property funds – which we have quite a few of – will definitely go out of business.” He predicts that swathes of “Dublin’s commercial property could eventually switch to residential.”

One positive consequence when we emerge out the other side might be a more equal division of unpaid work in the home

In retail, says McCartney, “social distancing measures have been causing a major contraction in footfall. The grocery sector was least affected, with “F&B, leisure and fashion sectors most impacted.”

As a result of that, and a move towards online shopping, there may be “long-term reduction in demand for retail space that will take time to claw back.”

Relationships: the Zoom effect

Zoom, an app previously used mostly to connect with colleagues in other parts of the world, has become central to the locked-down social lives, with everyone from five-year-olds to 95-year-olds using it to stay in touch with family.

Hayes Culleton believes that won’t change after the crisis. It will never replace face-to-face interactions, but there are times when it might prove a more convenient alternative to trudging across town to meet someone for coffee.

“I’ve been on Zoom coffee meetings. I was at a Zoom dinner party last weekend. There’s no reason you can’t have breakfast while your friend in Australia is having dinner,” she says.

Former ambassador Bobby McDonagh had his book group via Zoom recently, and his wife – who is recovering from a broken leg – has had physiotherapy appointments over Zoom. It’s not quite face-to-face, but it has been a surprisingly satisfactory alternative, he says.

For him, the crisis has given us all an opportunity to reset our priorities. Faced with the prospect of the loss of so many lives and the curtailment of our freedom makes us reconsider things like “the priority of friendship. The fact that we don’t need to be hectic and busy all the time. The fact that who wins the Premiership doesn’t really matter in the end.

“A lot of damage will be done to Ireland. A lot of people will be bereaved. A lot of people will die. But there is the prospect for us coming out of this a somewhat better people.”

Family life: A more equitable division of labour

The pandemic has plunged families all over the world into a new and previously unimaginable balancing act: parents are trying to juggle work, childcare and their children’s education, in sometimes suffocating proximity to one another.

One of the awful consequences of this are warnings from Women’s Aid and other organisations that a rise in domestic abuse may be a consequence.

"Child abuse and domestic violence do not stop in a pandemic; if anything it escalates," says Caroline Downey, president of the The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC). "Those who are already vulnerable now have no escape. We have had a 60 per cent increase on our Childline services since March 17th," at a time when vital services have not been able to fundraise.

For other families, one positive consequence when we emerge out the other side might be a more equal division of unpaid work in the home, suggest Hayes Culleton.

“Seventy five per cent of the unpaid work in the world is done by women. More and more, I’m talking to men who are saying, sorry I can’t take the call at that time, I’ve the childcare shift at the moment, and my partner is taking over later on. I’d be interested to see what part of that sticks afterwards, both from a remote working point of view, and the balancing of household duties.”

Education: Online teaching will become far more embedded

On the education front, the immediate issue right now for more than 50,000 students and their parents is what to do with the Leaving Certificate exams, writes Carl O'Brien, Irish Times Education Editor.

If the exams can’t go ahead in June, there are only three realistic options: defer the exams; give students predicted grades or automatic passes; or let higher/further education figure out their own entry criteria. The only certainty is that this cohort of students needs to move on come the autumn to make way for a new cohort of sixth-year students.

The lessons from this episode will likely feed into a shift toward using more continuous assessment over high-stakes exams.

The closure of schools has exposed a gaping digital divide across the haves and have-nots. Many students don’t have adequate broadband – or else their teachers or schools simply aren’t equipped to teach or support them online.

Online teaching and learning will become far more embedded in the education system once this crisis is over. This raises the stakes for students at risk of being of left behind. Ensuring all students have equal access to online support will become a much bigger issue, as will ensuring schools and teachers are properly equipped to deliver high-quality online support.

The fact that universities have had to embrace remote learning without the sky falling in means they could soon become the norm. It will also save money at a time when they are under severe financial pressure.

Even before the pandemic, the higher education sector had been struggling to regain the ground it lost during the recession. In those years, State funding plunged, staff-student ratios deteriorated, and universities slipped down international rankings.

Starved of public money and with private income, including that from international students taking a hit, colleges may well reassess ambitious expansion plans. The cost-benefits of distance learning could well see colleges rush to embrace this as primary method of teaching and learning.

However, Stephen Kinsella is sceptical that remote learning will ever be the preferred model for students. “We assume that students prefer remote learning. I am personally running three separate experiments with several hundred participants on whether that is true. It is not true.” Students “actually just need a more human approach.”

Tourism: When will we travel again?

More than any other sector, what happens in tourism is dependent on what happens elsewhere in the world.

"I think planes will be ready to fly in July but the big problem then will be borders, and when the borders in other countries will open," says president of the Irish Travel Agents Association, Pat Dawson. "Honestly I think it will be August or September and that is going to be with the wind behind us."

Mary McKenna of Tour America believes it could be as late as October before things start getting back to normal, though she’s hopeful “there’s a possibility it could be July or August …What I am more sure of is that when it does come back to normal I think people will start travelling again very quickly.”

But it’s not all bad news. McWilliams predicts that domestic tourism could be a beneficiary this year, once the travel restrictions are lifted. In recent days, the hashtag #WhenWeTravelAgain trended on Twitter, as users shared images of places they plan to visit, predominantly in Ireland.

Most experts agree that people’s travel intentions, at least, will have returned by 2021. The question is whether international travel will ever again be as affordable and accessible as it was.

Planning for international conferences is now being pushed out as far as 2022, says Cliff Taylor, and people may be less likely to travel for work. From a climate perspective, that may be no bad thing.

Additional reporting by Conor Pope

Geopolitics: Social unrest or solidarity?

On the world stage, there are fears that, as frustration sets in and anxieties intensify, the crisis could feed into the kind of social unrest now being seen in Italy, where singing from balconies has turned in some areas to the looting of supermarkets. Could this discontent be marshalled by populists and far-right nationalists, and lead to a wider destabilisation?

The crisis will present “a big, global psychological challenge”, says Bobby McDonagh, the former Irish ambassador to the EU, UK and Italy.

The question being asked is, he suggests: “Will it give a boost to the growth of nationalism and the kind of insularity which we had seen coming before coronavirus, or will the experience underline the reality of our interdependence on one another, and the importance of international cooperation?”

He believes that the outcome will be the latter, “one where the importance of international co-operation is underlined” and that a desire for “a stronger form of multilateralism” will emerge.

This view is shared by McWilliams, who predicts that "Germany and Holland will be defeated next week or the week after in their bizarre campaign to make sure that the Italian and Spanish people don't get fair financing", and a new Europe – one in which things like Brexit no longer seem so important – will emerge stronger.

In any case, McDonagh believes that “the intellectual energy now shouldn’t be focused on trying to predict the future, which none of us can know, but rather, on trying to shape the future. We should be not gazing gloomily into a crystal ball, but putting our shoulders to the wheel and deciding which side we’re on.”

Industry: Opportunities in the pharmaceutical sector

Europe's dependence on medicine imports from China and India has been thrown into sharp relief by the crisis.

"The need for the sourcing of what's called active pharmaceutical ingredients is definitely on the agenda," now, says Oliver O'Connor of the Irish Pharmaceutical Union. "Europe has to do better on discovery, research, and security of supply" on both new and generic medicines, he suggests.

There may be an opportunity for Ireland here, as the world returns to normality. “In the current situation, some countries in Europe are putting in place national measures to restrict exports of medicines. Ireland is not doing that. We think these things should be dealt with as a European level.

“We have shown ourselves to be a high-quality, highly reliable producer of sophisticated medicines. Our supply chains in and out of Ireland are robust and were able to survive this amazing crisis. It puts Ireland in a really strong position in life sciences for the world. It’s a good story to build on.

Arts: We need artists to make sense of it all

The entertainment sector has been devastated by the lockdown, says Caroline Downey, director at MCD, and Hozier’s manager.

“All venues, theatres across Ireland have closed, and that has a knock-on effect for the musicians, actors, crews, set designers, lighting designers all of whom are self-employed. Outdoor events support a huge amount of self-employed and smaller companies – staging, sound and lighting companies, screen hire, camper vans, trucking, caterers, marquee hire, lighting companies, security, drivers, Portaloo, generators.”

Downey hopes “theatres and smaller venues will open in June and larger events will be up and running by August.”

In the meantime, she says, artists such as Hozier, who have been performing via livestream from home, “do what they do best and continue to entertain. It seems to have lifted people’s spirits.”

Maureen Kennelly, the incoming director of the Arts Council and the current director of Poetry Ireland, has been heartened to see a line from Séamus Heaney appear as graffiti on Dublin walls during the crisis: "If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere."

It is symbolic of a wider turning to the arts that happens at a time of crisis. “I don’t think you could have any doubt that the arts is playing a crucial role, offering comfort, providing company to people in isolation.”

The cancellation of the Edinburgh Festival last week was a wake-up call to many people that life is not going to be returning to normal as soon as might have been expected. “We’re looking at the autumn at least. And we’re aware that when we do return, there might still be restrictions on mass gatherings. If a theatre can only be half full, for example, that will have a great impact.”

The sector will bounce back quickly, but that is dependent on continued investment and support. “There’s a huge amount of income from box office and sponsorship that will be lost. Arts organisations are deeply concerned and trying to recalibrate their plans.”

But, she adds, “artists and arts organisations have their own worries but in the midst of all that, they’ve been communicating outwards. They’ve displayed a generosity of spirit and have shown that they are adaptable and resilient. That has been very empowering.”

And when we come out the other side, “we’ll need them to reflect back what has happened to us, and to make sense of it.”

Sport: Hoping for a return to action in July

"The key for sports is how much of what has been frozen can be thawed out again, and how much is lost?" asks Mick O'Keeffe of Teneo, a global advisory firm that represents clients across the sporting sector.

“We’re hoping for a return to action in July. That would enable seasons to be finished and enable certain big events to take place,” he says.

In sport, as in other sectors, there’s a recognition that “the lights aren’t going to just turn on in July or August. There has to be an element of phasing back normality. We don’t know at this juncture are we going to have restrictive measures at matches? Are we going to have half crowds?”

As a result, he says, “a lot of things have been pushed into 2021. What you’re going to see next year is all these mega global sports events being condensed into one year.”

The longer the curve goes on, “the more challenging it becomes to run a GAA championship this year.” New rules and formats would have to be agreed. There would be no time for replays, “so we’d have to find ways of finishing matches on the day.”

Beyond the sports themselves, there are “massive implications for sponsorship deals”. Most people, he says, are taking “a common sense approach”, and contracts are being rolled over.

Even so, smaller and mid-size events, like marathons and triathlons, which require advance registration and pre-booking could be badly affected. “Their season is April to September, and they’ll lose 75 per cent of that.”

A lot of smaller clubs and sporting organisations “are so hand to mouth that it’s hard to see they will every recover. This could be the death knell for a lot of clubs,” says Noel O’Reilly, the Irish Times Deputy Sports Editor.

But, he adds, “once these regulations are lifted people will be desperate for some sort of normality. People are only realising the big part sport plays in their lives now.”

For many in the sector, it's about adapting to the new reality, says O'Keeffe. He's hoping "we'll get to the end of the year and say we had a GAA championships, we had an Eirtricity soccer and national league, we had an FAI Cup Final, we had a camogie final, the Six Nations got completed, the Pro-14 is up and running, we had a Dublin marathon. If you look back at the end of the year and say we've had a sporting year, that is going to be success."

Politics: What comes next?

The answer to the question "what comes next?" in politics often depends on what went before, writes Pat Leahy, Irish Times Political Editor.

The prospects for the formation of the next government – and its chances of enduring – depend on what happens in the coming weeks.

While the number of Covid-19 cases continues to grow by hundreds every day, and the fatalities mount, Ireland has not seen the sort of sustained growth in the number of cases – by a third or so per day was the benchmark – evident in countries where the virus struck before preparations could be made. In early March, the Taoiseach warned that there could be as many as 15,000 cases by the end the month; on March 31st, there were fewer than 3,500 cases. Though health experts warn fiercely against complacency, it seems that the containment measures are having an effect.

That does not mean that there will not be a surge in the number of cases over the coming weeks. There will, experts warn. The significant thing will be whether it is of a sufficient order to overwhelm the health system.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney admitted frankly this week that ministers do not know if the capacity added at a frantic rate to the health system in recent weeks will be enough. If it isn't, the prognosis is grim – think of Italy. Hospitals here may be unable to cope, patients unable to get treatment, intensive care could be overloaded, and thousands could die.

You can imagine the stink there will be when the special Covid-19 unemployment benefit is phased out in favour of regular unemployment benefit

Such a devastating scenario might well also destroy the current government, and probably any chance that it could transfigure into a new Fine Gael-Fianna Fail-based union that has a reasonable chance of lasting. If the situation gets very bad, it could do to Fine Gael what the financial crisis did to Fianna Fáil.

Right now, there is widespread support for the Government; people are willing them to be successful. If the health system is overwhelmed, that is likely to change quickly. There will be a lot of blame to go around.

But if the health system copes and the numbers of deaths are kept relatively low, if the Government is perceived to have handled the situation as well as could have been expected – then the prospects improve for a new coalition government of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, with the support of independents and possibly one of the smaller parties.

This would hardly be the change that many voters sought at the general election, but the mood for change by then might have given way to a desire for stability.

The next government will be formed against a background of unprecedented economic and social challenges left behind by the pandemic. It will face the necessity of unwinding some of the extraordinary financial supports put in place in recent weeks, and the need to put the public finances back on a sustainable footing.

That is never a task completed without rancour. You can imagine the stink there will be when the (€350 a week) special Covid-19 unemployment benefit is phased out in favour of regular unemployment benefit (€203 a week).

People might like the health, welfare and childcare services provided by a vastly expanded state; they might not relish paying for them through the inevitable tax increases. Public sector workers expecting pay increases under a new national wage agreement this year will be lucky to escape pay cuts instead. All this will make for a rough time for any government, and a bitter politics. And remember: that is the benign scenario.

But while those challenges are inevitable for the next government, there is also the possibility that politics is transformed by the experience of the crisis. So far, the crisis has been the occasion for an extraordinary social solidarity. It has also demonstrated that the institutional obstruction of reform – one of the most stubborn and often infuriating characteristics of the Irish system of government – can be overcome more or less instantly if the stakes are high enough.

The next government will undoubtedly face daunting challenges; it may also experience the most exciting possibilities.

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is Opinion Editor with The Irish Times