Remaking Ireland: Five positives from the pandemic

Positives from the pandemic: Máire Gilmartin of St Vincent's University Hospital in PPE; a climate protest near the Dáil; and traffic on the M50 in west Dublin. Photographs: Alan Betson
The crisis presents the country with huge threats. But it also shows us new ways forward – in health, housing, the public service, work and lifestyle

Jump to:
Introduction, by Cliff Taylor
A healthcare system for the better, by Paul Cullen
A new approach to housing, by Cliff Taylor
A more sustainable way to live, by Jennifer O’Connell
The end of rush hour, by Simon Carswell
More active government, by Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Introduction

By Cliff Taylor

So can we really restart our lives and the economy after Covid-19 in a better way? Greener, more sustainable, maybe even less stressful? Or should we be resigned to returning to the ways of the past? The crisis presents us with massive threats, notably to employment. But maybe it also helps us to see new ways forward. Healthcare, apparently stuck for years, has been reformed in a few weeks. Many people have been working from home and avoiding long commutes.

We may be able to restart some parts of the economy in a better direction and plan the reboot investment to also meet wider goals. The crisis may give us some positive pointers, as well as showing us weaknesses to be addressed. And undoubtedly the role of the State is central to the debate to come.

“The crisis has shown up shortcomings in states’ capabilities, but more than that, it has shown up how the way that we have been thinking about the role of the state over the past half century has been entirely inappropriate,” according to Prof Mariana Mazzucato, professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London.

“Since the 1980s, governments have been told to take a back seat and let business steer and create wealth, intervening only for the purpose of fixing problems when they arise. The result is that governments are not always properly prepared and equipped to deal with crises such as Covid-19 or the climate emergency.”

What we need, she tells The Irish Times, is a rethinking of the state’s role. “Rather than simply fixing market failures when they arise, the state should move towards actively shaping and creating markets to take on society’s most pressing challenges.”

We must solve our challenges rather than restore the status quo. Restoring the unsustainable status quo is a major threat at the moment

And with everything thrown up in the air, there is indeed a sense that major change is on the way. A paper by Dr Peter Clinch of the UCD Geary Institute and Dr Christian Ketels of the Harvard Business School, Acting now while preparing for tomorrow: Competitiveness upgrading in the shadow of Covid-19, says crises “are times when policy decisions have a critical impact on future outcomes and where the room for making such choices is particularly large.”

What might this mean in an Irish context? “If you want to identify the great challenges of our time,” says Prof Alan Barrett, director of the Economic and Social Research Institute, “climate is definitely one of them.”

The State must spend money to reflate the economy in an investment programme now certain to be reframed in the light of Covid-19 and the government negotiations.

A newly installed cycle lane and pedestrian lane installed on Ormond Quay by Dublin City Council. Photograph: Alan Betson
A new cycle lane on Ormond Quay installed by Dublin City Council. Photograph: Alan Betson

This time around there is a chance to make the green agenda central and focus spending in areas such as public transport and renewable energy, Barrett says. A few weeks ago we might have worried that we could not find people to do projects such as retrofitting older homes, he points out, but now all that has changed. Overheating, a key concern as recently as a few weeks ago, is now the least of our worries.

Crises tend to accelerate some changes already under way, according to Clinch and Ketels. Digital technology, for example, has suddenly moved centre stage in delivering healthcare remotely and is the key enabler for those who can work from home. Barrett says equality must be a key focus here, as many of the younger people who have lost work in areas such as hospitality will need upskilling to work in the digital era. Training and human capital thus need to be a key focus of future investment.

The economics professor Edgar Morgenroth argues that younger people have taken the biggest hit from the recession and thus the green agenda, of great importance to them, is an appropriate focus for new investment

And, according to Clinch and Ketels, a crisis can also lead to progress in areas that had appeared “locked” and impossible to reform – such as healthcare.

The recovery cannot just be a return back to the “normal” we were in before, Mazzucato argues. “Instead, the recovery needs to be a full-scale economic renewal, in which we harness the tools at the disposal of government to tilt the playing field in the direction of equitable, green and sustainable economic growth.”

The fiscal commitment needs to be to “do what it takes”, she says, “and make sure to steer the spending via missions to solve our challenges rather than restore the status quo. Restoring the unsustainable status quo is a major threat at the moment.”

Mazzucato has argued that the setting of “missions” – national goals relating to housing, sustainable growth and so on – are vital to frame the way the state and private sectors work together.

DCU economics professor Edgar Morgenroth argues that younger people have taken the biggest hit from the recession and thus the green agenda, of great importance to them, is an appropriate focus for new investment.

Likewise, housing and investment in training and upskilling. Perhaps these are the places to start to build something out of the crisis.

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1. A healthcare system for the better

By Paul Cullen

What was wrong before?
Successive governments have viewed the health service as a money-pit resistant to change and subject to internal turf wars. Although frontline staff were always held in high regard, the ever-rising budget and the chronic problems such as long waiting lists and trolley waits have been the source of widespread despair.

Things were not helped by the controversies surrounding big health projects such as construction of the National Children’s Hospital or the move of the National Maternity Hospital to St Vincent’s.

Although budget allocations rose year by year, the money never seemed to be in the right place, with medical and nursing organisations regularly pointing to staffing shortages and burnout in key areas. The balance of services also remained wrong, despite long-standing agreement that things should change, with primary care remaining the Cinderella of the system in funding terms relative to the hospitals.

Medicine everywhere had been undergoing a technology-driven revolution before this crisis, but the Irish health system lagged many others internationally.

A coronavirus patient being transferred at St Vincent’s hospital. Photograph: Alan Betson
A coronavirus patient being transferred at St Vincent’s hospital. Photograph: Alan Betson

How has it changed recently?
“I call it my kitchen table clinic,” veteran GP Tom O’Dowd says of this newly established workplace since the coronavirus pandemic exploded. In place of his usual surgery in the centre of Tallaght, O’Dowd now deals with most of his patients by phone.

At 68, the retired professor of general practice at TCD can’t afford to take any risks with this virus, so patients who need a physical examination may be referred to younger colleagues. There are also a few patients with communications challenges for whom face-to-face contact is best.

“I must have signed half a million prescriptions in my lifetime,” he observes, marvelling at the changes wrought to his profession over the past three months. “Today, I’ve written just two, for methadone. The rest go electronically to the pharmacist.”

Tele-medicine – whether by phone or video – and electronic prescribing are two innovations that were talked about for years in Irish health. But it took the present crisis to make them happen.

“Overnight, we had to rethink and rework how we delivered healthcare to patients. Overnight, we shifted to online video and phone-based systems,” says Austin Byrne, a GP based in Tramore.

“It took something as big as this to shake things up,” O’Dowd says. “There were all sorts of objections in the past but now, suddenly, things have been sorted out.”

At the stroke of the Minister for Health’s pen, in early April, electronic prescribing was introduced. “Every year, about 28 million prescriptions were written by GPs, but most of these just disappeared overnight,” Byrne says.

The willingness of people to work again in the Irish system was very encouraging. That sense of patriotism and commitment . . . I wouldn’t have been sure about it before this happened

But these changes are just a microcosm of the revolution triggered by the coronavirus crisis in medicine. Learning about this virus has been passed on within the medical community almost as fast as the disease has been transmitted. The genetic sequence of the virus was determined and tests were developed within weeks, and a vaccine is likely to be developed in record time.

“We’ve developed the ability to rapidly provide information to a busy audience in a concise, succinct way. It’s a completely different way of delivering education to the front line,” says Prof Mary Horgan, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

Through social media, health workers have collaborated on a scale never before seen; in the Irish context, this was often about sourcing desperately needed supplies of ventilators and personal protective equipment for staff.

The crisis has brought old distinctions between specialties and sectors crashing down. The Government effectively rented the private hospitals for three months, while doctors moved across sectors and out of their normal areas.

“The willingness of people to work again in the Irish system was very encouraging,” says Dr Brian Turner, health economics lecturer in UCC. “That sense of patriotism and commitment . . . I wouldn’t have been sure about it before this happened.”

Horgan sees “lots of positives” in the current situation, starting with her own specialty of infectious diseases.

“We’re learning a huge amount from patients with the disease about the immune response and how to prevent cytokine storms. It was the same in another era with Aids – we learned about transplant medicine from that.”

Meanwhile, the wider health service, more used to external criticism and internal rivalries, has been showered with plaudits for the work of “frontline heroes”. “The community spirit supporting healthcare workers has been amazing. It’s great there’s such respect for frontline staff. This is really different,” says Horgan.

“The ability to get rid of red tape has been fantastic,” according to Horgan. “Our managers listened to what we said and did what we asked of them.”

Not all the changes were intended or expected, but many were positive. A year-long mumps outbreak ground to a halt as a side-benefit of social distancing measures introduced for coronavirus.

Hospital trolleys disappeared – for a time. Having hit a daily record of 760 in January, they melted away as the crisis bore down, reaching a low of five at the start of April.

Clearly, fear of infection was the biggest factor keeping people away from emergency department and GP surgeries. Doctors rightly fret that we have stored up a backlog of medical problems through patients with ailments not seeking attention.

The huge dependency on medicalisation is well documented in the literature. For some people, their response to life stresses is to medicalise them. That just disappeared

But the trends may suggest that not all those traditionally seeking medical attention actually need it. Some patients pick up infection in hospital, do not receive the right treatment or simply get better with the passage of time. Along with the non-care, there has been more self-care.

“The huge dependency on medicalisation is well documented in the literature,” O’Dowd says. “For some people, their response to life stresses is to medicalise them. That just disappeared.”

The State’s takeover of private hospitals for three months during the crisis aimed to provide extra hospital capacity so the system could deal with the expected surge in virus cases flooding hospitals.

In the event, the surge, while it came, was smaller than feared and was within the capacity of critical care services to accommodate.

Turner ranks the measure as a “potential positive” as it is still unclear what happens after the three-month period. The private hospitals could be used to clear public health waiting lists, he believes, thereby providing the incoming government with a “good news story”.

What should it be like in the future?
Many of the changes we have seen, such as the knitting together of public and private work, and a move of services into the community, resemble a “fast-track” version of Sláintecare, the 10-year plan for the health service that has been batted about for a number of years without getting the full go-ahead.

“Whether we get Sláintecare will depend on the funding. We don’t know about that, but what we do know is that the longer we wait, the harder it is going to be to implement.”

And while some observers say the State should simply take over the private hospitals long term, Turner believes that approach may spark legal challenges.

The challenge in health now is to lock down the good changes that have occurred, and to harness the goodwill and flexibility that have been generated, for future improvements.

Costs and benefits: Making private hospitals public
As the State took over the use of private hospitals for a period and much healthcare moved online, have we seen a shift to a new way of operation? 
The current arrangement, under which 20 private hospitals are paid around €115 million per month may be extended for a few months. But the real question is what happens in the longer term? The State won’t keep control of all the facilities, but will it seek to maintain access to, or even buy out, some private hospitals?

The crisis gives “a once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, according to Sara Burke, research assistant professor at TCD’s centre for health policy and management, who says we can’t go back to crowded public hospitals, especially given the pandemic.

“There are a number of things now that could happen in line with the objective set out in the Sláintecare plan,” says Burke, who worked with the Oireachtas Committee that agreed the plan.“For example the State could use private hospitals as the elective only facilities that are badly needed.” 

Technology can help, she says – as shown in the pandemic in areas like mental health services – and in future it could make universal GP access a more affordable goal.

The cost of the Sláintecare plan was always debated but TD Róisín Shortall, who chaired the Oireachtas committee, said it could be €1 billion a year for the first four years and €500 million a year for the following five. The cost of buying private consultants out of their public hospital contracts was put at €650 million in a report by former senior public servant Dr Donal de Buitleir.

No-one is suggesting higher taxes now, but in the long term paying for a better health service will be a big issue. The recent IFAC report gave some examples of the decisions required to raise large amounts of funds. Not indexing tax bands and credits would raise €500 million a year, while a one point increase in both tax rates would raise around €1 billion a year. – Cliff Taylor

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2. A new approach to housing

By Cliff Taylor

What was wrong before?
Housing was the defining issue of the last general election campaign – all based around the issue of affordability. The rise in house prices since the last crisis, while it had started to tail off, had left prices unaffordable for many younger people – and pushed those who could afford to buy farther and farther from city centres.

Ireland has “an urban jobs markets and a suburban housing market”, according to Ronan Lyons, assistant economics professor at TCD, with about half of the working population facing a lengthy commute.

High house prices left many stuck in a dysfunctional rental market, pushing rents well above previous peaks. Central Bank lending rules limited what they could borrow as a mortgage. These two trends have played together: renters found it difficult to save to pay for a house, worsening the affordability problem for them and reducing new supply in the apartment market.

The cost of building has appeared to be a big blockage, especially for apartments. And the rental squeeze and lack of availability of social housing pushed significant numbers into homelessness.The general election led to a bidding war – about who would get the most houses built, and how they would do it.

A much higher level of direct State building is on the cards. But the private sector will need to return to building too, if we are to get anywhere near housebuilding targets in the years ahead. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
A much higher level of direct State building is on the cards. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

How has it changed recently?
The coronavirus crisis has given the market a major shock – both in terms of demand, as people’s incomes fall and mortgage availability tightens, and supply. Construction has just restarted after a period of closure, and uncertainty about the impact of social distancing rules on costs and timelines remains.

Most forecasters now expect a fall in house prices this year – guesstimates range between a fall of 5 and 10 per cent – but forecasts for 2021 depend entirely on whether the economy has successfully reopened.

With lower incomes and tighter mortgage availability, Dr Lorcan Sirr, senior housing lecturer at Technological University Dublin, says we face a “conundrum of lower house prices but fewer people available to buy them”.

Building output will fall. “Lower prices will tend to stall speculative development, which is not good news for a government housing programme almost fully reliant on private developers,” according to Orla Hegarty, associate professor at UCD and an architect.

Goodbody and Davy stockbrokers both forecast that house completions could fall from about 21,000 last year to about 14,000 this year, well below the required 30,000 to 35,000.

Rents should decline as demand recedes and a raft of short-term let properties come onto the market, according to Sirr, with the added possibility that online teaching could cut student demand, at least for now.

So like the rest of the economy, the housing market has been turned upside down by the virus.

What should it be like in the future?
Is there an opportunity here to restart in a new direction? The virus is a major shock, but the medium- to long-term issues remain, according to Lyons – a rising population with smaller family size and a need to build more housing for smaller, urban households. And to do it in an affordable way.

The opportunity is that more resources are now likely to be free in the construction sector and there is a need for public investment to boost the economy and employment. Both the Economic and Social Research Institute and the Fiscal Advisory Council have said this should be directed towards housing.

Getting it right – and getting value for money – is the challenge. Lyons has long called for a detailed study of the costs of building (“The Government needs to know how much it costs to build, say, a generic two-bedroom apartment,” he says) and where these costs come from. Land costs are key, and Sirr says it is amazing that Ireland has no land price register, similar to the house price register.

A much higher level of direct State building is on the cards. But the private sector will need to return to building too, if we are to get anywhere near housebuilding targets in the years ahead – and to do so in a sustainable and profitably way.

“Recession is both a significant challenge to the State, but also the greatest opportunity it has had in years to end market reliance,” says Sirr. “It can be a leader in housing infrastructure provision rather than a back-seat facilitator. As prices fall, interest rates are low, and there will be many people seeking both housing that is affordable and employment, now is the time to step up with a comprehensive programme of building social and affordable housing.”

The State pays about €1 billion a year to private sector landlords for its housing programmes, Sirr says, arguing that the money would be much better directed now to building.

A change in direction on housing has the potential to lever many other benefits, including offsetting construction unemployment, supporting regional development and advancing commitments on climate change

Hegarty agrees that the State needs to change direction towards a programme of direct building, replacing the old system in which it bought one in four of the houses coming on to the market last year for social housing. She says that “a change in direction on housing has the potential to lever many other benefits, including offsetting construction unemployment, supporting regional development and advancing commitments on climate change”.

There will still be challenges, notably in relation to land use. Lyons points to the need to use “brownfield” land close to city centres for development – which is to be the job of the Land Development Agency, established by the outgoing Government, but still operating on an interim basis. Its mandate will feature in the government talks.

“We need to find ways to get more houses on the same plot of land, rather than forcing people to live farther and farther away,” says Lyons. There will be challenges to do this denser living in a “pandemic-proof way” – Hegarty says that the virus may have implications, for example, for apartment standards. And public transport links are also a vital part of the puzzle, to cut car commutes and lead to more sustainable lifestyles.

Costs and benefits: Investing in housing
There seems little doubt that a major programme of State-led housebuilding will be at the centre of the next government’s plans, with the hope that private building can also revive.

Housebuilding by the private sector was slashed during the last recession, and the State withdrew from the market. Maybe this time it can actually be different.

If there is one thing all the experts are agreed on, it is that we should invest in property as part of the recovery plan. The Fiscal Advisory Council and the ESRI both say that this as a good way to boost the economy heading into 2021, as well as meeting a longer-term goal to build more houses – including more social and affordable ones.

This brings significant economic benefits. The costs would be met by borrowing, initially at least, appropriate for once-off costs, especially when interest rates are so cheap.

The cost may be in other investments that do not go ahead , so that funds can be directed to housing. The Government is revising its long-term investment plan to 2040 and it remains to be seen where the subtractions are, as well as the additions.

A few months ago, says Kieran McQuinn, research professor at the ESRI, the concern was that the property sector could be overheating. So the Covid-19 crisis presents the Government with an opportunity to invest, with this fear removed.

The Government had allocated €1.5 billion to the construction of social and affordable houses this year, he says, and ideally investment of another €1 billion would be added to this investment rate, perhaps running into next year and 2022.

There could also be more spent on retrofitting, he says. It was allocated a modest €45 million this year between a general scheme and a special programme for older State-owned properties, with the added advantage of helping cut emissions. – Cliff Taylor

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3. A more sustainable way to live

By Jennifer O’Connell

What was wrong before?
It was one of the great paradoxes of Irish life. In survey after survey, we claimed to have reasonably high levels of life satisfaction – yet further investigation on specific issues revealed that many of us weren’t happy at all. Instead, we were caught in what Oisin Coghlan of Friends of the Earth calls a cycle of “working and living at warp speed . . . we were always connected to work – either working, commuting or always on via our devices”.

There was a feeling that many of us had yet to benefit from the economic recovery, and were living in a state of constant financial pressure. One in two adults surveyed in January by Behaviour and Attitudes (B&A) said they were only “getting by” financially. Life pillars like being able to buy a home, rent somewhere to live close to work, juggle work and childcare affordably, and plan for retirement felt further and further out of reach to many of us.

We were disconnected from one another and the planet. We were worried about the creep of technology intensifying that disconnect. We felt, says Ian McShane of B&A, that technology was “erecting barriers between family members in their own homes, and [putting] increased pressure on us to conform to society’s view of who I am”.

According to new research, 56 per cent of us appreciate nature more since the lockdown. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
According to new research, 56 per cent of us appreciate nature more since the lockdown. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

How has it changed recently?
Some of the changes have been for the worse. Many of us are far more worried about our finances and long-term job security. A trend that began after the global financial crisis, which saw younger people report lower levels of wellbeing and life satisfaction than older age groups, has been exacerbated, according to a Eurofound survey of 85,000 18- to 34-year-olds across Europe. More than half were at risk of depression, compared to 5 per cent in 2016.

Our dependence on technology, too, has deepened, says clinical psychologist Maureen Gaffney. “It has become a lifeline, our only window onto the outside world.”

But pushing the pause button has allowed us to find joy in simpler things. We were all “on that treadmill of wanting everything faster, and not being prepared to wait for anything”, says Gaffney. Now, we have to wait for everything, and we’re asking questions like what the urgency was for, and “when did retail become recreation?” There has been “something freeing about making do with less”.

We’re connecting more with one another. According to the B&A research, 28 per cent of all adults are calling friends they hadn’t been in touch with. We’re also Zooming, emailing, writing letters and postcards. We’re rediscovering a sense of community. We’re shopping for neighbours and helping our children with schoolwork.

Whether it’s teachers, mothers and fathers, frontline workers, how we do eldercare or the role that schools, grandparents and creches play in our children’s lives – so much of that has been brought into focus

The pandemic, says Coghlan, has revealed the hidden scaffolding of society. It has forced us to look at four things: the warp speed of our lives, childcare, eldercare and planet care. It has posed questions about “who is keeping the country going? Who is keeping our households going? Whether it’s teachers, mothers and fathers, frontline workers, how we do eldercare or the role that schools, grandparents and creches play in our children’s lives – so much of that has been brought into focus”.

And we’re not just reconnecting with ourselves and each other; we’re reconnecting with nature. In some ways, says Gaffney, what we’re going through is the “essence of mindfulness, in that we’re both much more aware of what’s going on inside us, and the world around us”.

According to the B&A research, 56 per cent of us appreciate nature more since the lockdown, and 46 per cent are more aware of the environment. Emissions have fallen and air quality has improved but, as Coghlan points out, “relying on catastrophic external shocks is not a good way to try and manage our emissions”.

What should it be like in the future?
Which of our “new Covid behaviours” will we want to hang onto? Quite a few of them, it seems.

In a recent nationwide survey by B&A, just 29 per cent of all adults said they wanted everything to go back to the way it was. Sixty per cent said that while they wanted most of their old lives back, they intended to make changes. For 12 per cent, those changes will be significant.

“The great majority of Irish people hope to use the pandemic crisis as an opportunity to reassess their lives, recalibrate their work/home/family balance,” says McShane.

Gaffney suspects ultra-consumerism – “retail as recreation” – will not bounce back, and that men, in particular, will “have some second thoughts about their lives, especially those in high-pressure jobs. For many, this is the first time they have seen what their kids do day to day”, and it has brought enormous joy.

She would like to see companies facilitating conversations about how to help their employees better balance their lives. “What will really matter is having these conversations collectively. Otherwise, it’s too easy to be absorbed again into the way things were.”

At a national level, she would like a taskforce set up to look at how we care for the older members of society, and how we harness the care and goodwill shown by communities “to keep older people living in their homes”.

For a lot of us, a more sustainable lifestyle and climate is high on the agenda. Eighty-eight per cent of all adults surveyed by B&A said they would like to see a very strong set of environmental plans emerge post-pandemic.

Coghlan’s hope is the science will become part of the planning around climate change, just like it did during the crisis. Now, he says, is the time to start “hardwiring in expert advice, transparency and accountability” into how we respond to the climate emergency, as we did to coronavirus.

What we need, says Gaffney, is to ensure is that the “crisis is not seen as an end point, or a huge interruption, but the opening act for something new”.

“Before, too many people felt they lost control of their life, and had the sense they’re whizzing round this roundabout that you can’t step off.” With so much control being taken away from us, we “have learned the joy in being able to exercise control when we can”.

Costs and benefits: A sustainable lifestyle
It’s hard to quantify the costs and benefits of a slower pace of life, but sustainability also means living in a more environmentally friendly way – and here there are some figures we can consider.

The State wants your household to go green – and there are a range of subsidies to help you do so. The question is whether you are prepared to pay the rest of the cost yourself and accept the inconvenience, for example in the work taken to retrofit your house, or the expense of changing to an electric car.

The benefits are clear. Households are significant emitters of carbon in Ireland, mainly due to the fuels we use to heat our homes and also put in our cars. State incentives are available to upgrade the energy efficiency of homes built before 2006 – for example attic insulation, heat pumps, dry lining and so on.

But full retrofits of older homes are a big job and it will be interesting to see what the new programme for government says about this. Retrofits re not cheap – costing at least €30,000 and probably €50,000 or €60,000 for most households. They are also lengthy and disruptive, but do deliver a return as we use massive amounts of energy through walls, attics, door and windows. Will the State aim to retrofit its own housing stock or aim for wider coverage through an extended grants scheme?

And then there are electric cars, with grants of up to €5,000 available on their purchase. A recent government paper estimate that the total subsidy per car when VRT and motor tax relief and other supports are counted is worth between €10,000 and €13,500. This means that the €200 million allocated for electric cars in the Government’s investment plan will only last until 2021. And the target is to get to 850,000 cars by 2030.

It’s not cheap being green, and a key issue for the State in the years ahead is how to incentivise us all to adopt more sustainable lives and persuade us to spend some of our money doing so. This doubtless has been a key debate in government formation talks. – Cliff Taylor

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4. The end of rush hour

By Simon Carswell

What was wrong before?
An increasing number of people were spending an increasing amount of time travelling to work. This added to congestion times, created longer rush hours in the mornings and late afternoons or early evenings , and increased the demand and the cost of renting offices in prime areas of Dublin.

The 2016 census found that almost three million people were commuting, an increase of 9 per cent on five years earlier. Almost 200,000 commuters, or roughly one in 10, spent an hour or more commuting to work, while commuters in the counties around Dublin had the longest commute.

Demand for office space has outstripped supply in Dublin in recent years. This has driven the vacancy rate in Dublin last year to below 10 per cent for the first time in 20 years. It pushed rents on prime office space to an average of €673 per square metre, making Dublin among one of the most expensive places to rent an office behind London, Paris and Zurich.

The number of people crossing the Grand and Royal Canals into these prime areas of Dublin on public transport in morning rush hour was rising steadily from the last economic crash, up 35 per cent to 112,000 a day by 2018. This has filled up trains, buses and trams. The number of cyclists crossing the canals into the city more than doubled to 12,000 in about the same time.

In February, just a month before the pandemic, a pan-European survey by Eurofound said that people in Dublin have the fifth longest average commuting time in the European Union – at close to an hour.

Last year Dublin was the 14th most congested city in the world and the sixth worst in Europe.

“The world wasn’t all that great in many respects,” says David Ralph, assistant professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin and author of a book on commuting.

Traffic on Dublin’s M50 at the M4 Junction. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.
Traffic on Dublin’s M50. Photograph: Alan Betson

How has it changed recently?
The restrictions on public movement to stem the spread of the coronavirus disease have forced people who can to work remotely at home. This has emptied the country’s roads.

After the Government urged people to stay at home on March 27th, traffic volumes on the country’s roads fell by 60 to 70 per cent on weekdays compared with similar traffic volumes last year, according to data collected from more than 350 traffic counters and sensors across the national road network monitored by State agency, Transport Infrastructure Ireland.

Major employers have been asking employees to continue to work from home. Facebook, which employs almost 5,000 people in Ireland, says it does not expect to reopen most of its Irish offices until July 6th. Twitter has told its employees that they can work from home indefinitely.

A survey by NUI Galway and the Western Development Commission earlier this month found that 87 per cent of more than 7,000 surveyed were working remotely because of Covid-19.

What should it be like in the future?
The pandemic has forced bosses and workers alike to change work practices in a way they may never have thought possible before. While the changes have brought stress and strain, there are benefits that could be retained as society reopens with a decline in Covid-19 infections.

Existing commercial property could be converted into much-needed apartments. Head offices could be reduced in size and satellite offices in lower-cost locations or cheaper shared office space could be leased on a short-term, temporary basis for meetings. Property agents expect to see the return of shorter-term leases where the Irish market has traditionally favoured leases of 25 years.

Cycling could become safer as a commuting option with less vehicle traffic on the roads, creating opportunities to build more cycle paths and so-called “greenways” in and around cities.

Dr Alma McCarthy, a professor at NUI Galway’s school of business and economics, says the pandemic has shown that “work is a thing you do rather than a place you go to.”

There is no need for us all to be commuting into Dublin and on the M50 from 7.30am to 9am. There are a lot of people who could work a couple of days at home but go into the office for a day or two

She believes there is potential for a “blended model” of working where employees might work remotely several times a week, helping to ease traffic congestion. She points to the university’s survey this month where 83 per cent indicated they would like to continue working remotely after the crisis with 42 per cent saying their preference was to work remotely several times a week.

“There is no need for us all to be commuting into Dublin and on the M50 from 7.30am to 9am. There are a lot of people who could work a couple of days at home but go into the office for a day or two where you can do that social connection and some of the more innovative and creative things that come from being co-located,” she says.

These changes require buy-in from employers and “leveraging technology,” she says. Technology means that staff no longer need to meet face-to-face and that there can be effective virtual meetings with companies even starting to use holograms to improve meetings, she says.

Sociology professor David Ralph believes “staggered starts to the workday” could be a post-pandemic solution to reduce personal contact with the added benefit of reducing traffic congestion.

David Ralph says there will be “a reimagining of the workplace and greater trust on the side of the employers that their employees will be productive” along with “a weakening of the link between presence and productivity.” He does not believe the office will fully disappear, however.

“There is a kind of a creativity or innovation can be fostered from serendipitous meetings with colleagues at the water-cooler just discussing an idea. We, as society and culture, would certainly lose something if that went. If you are just stuck at home in your ergonomic chair at an ergonomic desk in your bedroom all day, that is going to be challenging over a long stretch,” he says.

He points to how previous public health crises such as cholera and typhoid outbreaks in big cities like Paris in the 19th century led to the disappearance of tight, medieval spaces and a “reimagining of cities” with the creation of large boulevards and public sanitation systems.

He believes something similar could happen in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Costs and benefits: Working from home
The ability to work from home has helped many people to stay in work through the current crisis. An ESRI report by Paul Redmond and Sean McGuinness estimates that before Covid-19 hit, some 14 per cent of Irish employees worked at least some of the time from home. As well as savings jobs, the ESRI points out that this has helped to control the virus, as well as solving some short-term childcare care problems. Those in better-paid jobs have been the main beneficiaries.

Is this the way of the future? DCU economics professor Edgar Morgenroth believes it is. Evidence was mixed on the benefits beforehand, he says, but many businesses have seen productivity maintained. “The crisis has shown it is possible,” he says, “and this will make a change for the better possible.”

Employees can improve work-life balance and, crucially, emissions from car commutes are cut. Private cars account for some 40 per cent of transport emissions and have been a fast-growing source of pollution.

Flexible working would be another potential plus. One senior chief executive has said he sees much greater opportunities for past-time and evening work for some company functions performed remotely. And if it all results in fewer people travelling into Dublin, this will be a big plus.

What of the wider impacts? As car commuting falls and the green agenda becomes more important, Morgenroth says that much road investment should be cancelled, with cash redirected to areas such as broadband, to help the regional spread from home working.

National roads are due to cost €6.6 billion in the Government’s investment programme to 2040. But home working and the need for social distancing will also disrupt the economics of public transport, at least for now, requiring a greater public subsidy. New projects will probably proceed, though, as by the time they come on stream we could hope distancing was a thing of the past. – Cliff Taylor

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5. More active government

By Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

What was wrong before?
In his influential book Ireland 1912-1985, the historian Joe Lee delivered an excoriating critique of the Irish State and its failures since independence. He described a centralised, risk-averse bureaucracy where creative thinking was discouraged, visionary leadership lacking and where ideas for change would be snuffed out by “the forces of resistance and inertia”.

The public service could “rise splendidly to the occasion”, Lee wrote, but that was when faced with crises or problems that largely defined themselves, not the more diffuse, complex and long-term problems that set the course of the country’s development.

“It was no accident that the public service generally responded well, and sometimes superbly, to the second World War. There, the problem was defined for them. It was equally no accident that only a handful learned anything from the experience,” he wrote.

Lee was reflecting the mood of the time – his book was published in 1989 – but he was also articulating a broader view that has, despite many important changes in how the public service works, kept a strong hold in the public mind.

Some of his specific criticisms – the State’s aversion to real local government, its lopsided regional development policies or its inability to see big projects to completion – are still heard almost every week, 30 years later.

A Covid-19 press conference at the Department of Health: The crisis has led to a rebalancing of personal rights in favour of the public good. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
The Covid-19 crisis has led to a rebalancing of personal rights in favour of the public good. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

How has it changed recently?
The role of a state expands in a crisis. It alone can mobilise the resources needed to wage a war or fight a deadly virus while helping to offset the resulting economic collapse. Over the past four months, states have taken aggressive steps to underwrite livelihoods, place economies in induced comas, and restrict and monitor their people’s movements.

In Ireland, almost overnight, the State moved to top up private incomes, ban evictions and, in effect, nationalise the private healthcare system. Nominally these changes are temporary, but history tells us big shocks have a way of changing government and society in lasting ways. The Great Depression resulted in the New Deal. The second World War helped forge the modern European welfare state.

In Ireland and elsewhere, the crisis has already altered some attitudes towards government. Public servants are literally applauded from the doorsteps. The question now is whether things revert to the status quo ante or whether we are on the cusp of a radical shift.

What should it be like in the future?
The change in public expectations of the State has been the most profound of the crisis, according to Shana Cohen, director of the think-tank Tasc. That could alter the political dynamic, giving new impetus to claims for a universal basic income, for example.

And if the State can restrict evictions or preserve jobs during this crisis, many people will ask why it cannot do so the next time a downturn comes. “I think it’s been a restoration of public values. I don’t think you can go back on that,” she says.

In Ireland, the crisis has led to a radical rebalancing of personal rights in favour of the public good. The State restricts individuals’ movements and adopts intrusive monitoring techniques for reasons of public health. How and when all of that is undone will be one of the major debates in all societies as they emerge from the pandemic.

Cohen argues that the crisis could prompt a re-evaluation of “private sector primacy” in Ireland, or “the idea that you can subcontract out a public service to a company and expect it to be done better”.

“In the fact that the State has taken over private hospitals here, even if it’s temporary, there is a recognition that it’s a two-tier system and that that was not effective to address the pandemic.”

Maybe what this crisis has done is show people that there are really fundamental things about our public system that do work

The experience of recent months will change the way the public service functions. Kevin Cardiff, secretary general at the Department of Finance during key periods of the last crisis, says that after the immediate challenge to protect the health and wellbeing of its people, the State’s biggest challenge of the crisis will be to find the best way to pay for emergency measures, some of which will have to stretch far beyond this year. However, the crisis also provides opportunities to change how the State and its institutions work.

He notes that even some of the areas that have always been difficult to reform have undergone huge change almost overnight. If thousands of office workers and others can suddenly work effectively from a distance, why will we ever again require all of them to cram onto buses, trains or motorways every working day to get into Dublin. “When you throw things up in the air, there is an opportunity for change, and we should be cautious about going back to exactly the same systems as before.”

Cardiff cautions against assuming that government decision-making can continue at crisis-era speed. Every State decision must negotiate a “network of vetoes, checks and balances”, he says. “What happens in a crisis is people are much less willing to exercise their veto . . . In the crisis, people have been allowed to spend what was necessary . . . That control was waived temporarily. I didn’t see much of that change after the last crisis.”

But the crisis has shown that, notwithstanding its flaws, the State is “stable and solid”, Cardiff argues. “We needed more beds, we needed more ICU space, and it took four weeks. I’m not talking about whether it was the right response, but it was effective and it was swift and it was decided by the democratic institutions. And it was overseen in a real way by the Oireachtas. Maybe what this crisis has done is show people that there are really fundamental things about our public system that do work.”

If the crisis produces a more active role for the State, Cohen says, that will put it in a much better position to take on its next big test: climate change. Achieving deep cuts in carbon emissions will require huge changes in lifestyle, and difficult government decisions that will affect some sectors in society more than others.

“The way that the State prepares the public for climate change will be an indication of how active and constructive a role the State is going to take,” she adds.

Costs and benefits: Active government
“We need a more interventionist State”, said Philip O’Connell, director of the UCD Geary Institute and Professor of Applied Social Science, “more responsive to risk management and providing better services in areas like health and housing.”

O’Connell points out that the Irish welfare system already does a good job redistributing from higher to lower income households. Where Ireland has fallen down, he said, is in State provision of services such as healthcare and housing, “precisely the ones that have been important in the crisis,” with health having to be overhauled and overcrowding among some groups and workers a key in the spread of Covid-19.

More work by the State costs money. An Irish Congress of Trade Unions document this week says that Ireland needs to step up its provision of “universal services” and that tax levels here are on average €3,000 less per person than in other richer EU countries. The main gap, they says is in social insurance contributions, especially by employers, which they say if aligned to richer EU country levels could raise another €9 billion for the exchequer.

Increasing taxes on jobs may not be a good idea, emerging from a massive economic shock. But that is where this debate is heading – whether we need some kind of new social contract and how we pay for it. – Cliff Taylor

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