Are we near the end of this seemingly endless crisis yet?
The short and dispiriting answer is no, we are not even close to the end. There was definitely cause for optimism in the early part of the summer with Ireland seemingly moving through the first three phases of the exit from lockdown with comparative ease. All the talk was of the curve being successfully flattened while new cases declined and the numbers of lives claimed by Covid-19 each day fell significantly. But - as has we have seen in many countries across the world - this beast is not easily tamed and infection rates are on the rise again. The critical R number could be, by some estimates, dangerously close to 2. This has triggered loud alarm bells in the corridors of power and in hospital ICUs across the country which has led to many elements of phase 4 of the lockdown exit being pushed back.
Can you remind me again what the R number is?
The R-number is the average number of people an infected person passes the virus onto and according to Prof Philip Nolan, the chairman of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) modelling group, it has likely risen to 1.4, but could be as high as 1.8. When the virus seemed to be on the wane the R-number was closer to 0.6. According to the current models, if the spread of the virus continues as it has done recently, the number of new cases could rise to more than 150 a day by August 10th. The State's current "precarious position" has seen the Health Service Executive (HSE) warn that hospitals will not be able to cope if a second wave of coronavirus hits during the winter flu season.
Why is the winter flu season so important?
Because, traditionally, when flu is spreading widely, hospitals are under the most extreme pressure. As it stands, they are operating at an 80 per cent capacity, with the 20 per cent being kept in reserve to allow for any Covid-surge that may happen. During the winter months, many hospitals see their capacity exceed 100 per cent and if that coincides with a second wave - or a continuation of the first wave - of coronavirus, we are going to be in serious trouble.
That is all very worrying isn’t it?
Everything is very worrying these days but it is important to stress at this point that Ireland has not seen a major spike in infection rates and the county's 14-day incidence of the virus remains among the lowest in Europe, according to the latest country data from European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. We are not experiencing a second wave of the virus.
What is the Covid toll as it stands?
Official tallies suggest that - at the time of writing (10:20am on Friday July 17th) it has claimed the lives of 1,749 while 25,698 people have been confirmed as having had the illness.
What is behind the increased number of cases in recent weeks?
Some class of increase was always going to be inevitable as the country started to reopen and people started going about their daily lives and interacting more with each other. However, there have been clusters arising out of house parties in recent days while about 20 per cent of new cases are connected to international travel, either imported cases or people travelling here from elsewhere and passing the disease on.
International travel? I thought we were being told to stay at home?
We are. But that doesn’t mean the country has been hermetically sealed. Flights to and from Europe and the US are still taking off and landing as they have done throughout the crisis.
The US? But isn’t the disease rampant there?
It is certainly a long way from being brought under control in that part of the world and an increase in the number of flights to and from the US in recent weeks has been a cause for concern in many quarters, not least because US travellers are not allowed come to other countries in the EU.
Why are they allowed come here so?
Because Ireland not in the Schengen Area and as a result it is not part of that wider EU ban. It is, however, important to point out that just because planes are travelling to and from the US, it does not mean there is a significant number of people on those planes.
What do you mean by that?
Aer Lingus have three flights to the US daily, United Airlines have four a week and American Airlines have three. But the reality is that only a handful of people are on any of those flights. In recent days one flight crossed the Atlantic ferrying eight passengers to Ireland.
But why would an airline fly a plane with so few passengers?
Freight is one simple answer to that question. There is a significant cargo business that needs to be catered for while it is also important to keep the routes open to allow for essential journeys . There are certainly some tourists from the US and from other problematic countries travelling to Ireland but the numbers are not thought to be significant, at least not at this stage.
But don’t people who come here from overseas have to quarantine?
No, not really. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Dáil this week that the use of the word "quarantine" in this context was wrong. What people have to do is self-isolate, apparently.
And do new arrivals “self isolate”?
Well, some do and some don’t; an answer which is not much use to anyone we know.
So, what’s the deal with travel, then?
The advice against unnecessary travel overseas has been extended until the middle of August but the Government still plans to publish a “green list” of countries with similar levels of infection rates that people can travel to on Monday.
What? That sounds sort of confusing. Have they not heard of the concept of mixed messaging?
Indeed it is confusing. On Monday we will get a list of countries we can travel to with relative safety but we will also be told not to go to those countries or indeed any other countries unless it is essential.
And what countries will be on the green list?
Too early to say, although you can expect to see countries with a broadly similar infection rate to Ireland’s on the list. Varadkar said the green list would include countries where “you are no more likely to get the virus there than here”. Don’t expect too many countries to feature and even if they do feature you’re not supposed to go to them anyway so it doesn’t really matter.
Um, what is the point of the green list then?
What indeed. According to the Tánaiste, if a country makes it onto the green list for those travelling "between Ireland and a country on the A-list or the green list there'll be no restrictions, and that's based on science, based on the fact that if you're travelling to one of those countries you're no more likely to get the virus there than a weekend in Dublin or weekend in Killarney. "
Oh, and wasn’t there talk of a voucher so we could holiday at home?
Yeah, that is not going to happen.
Anything else about overseas visits and visitors?
Well, “tighter controls” are also expected to be implemented on passengers travelling between countries not on the “green list” - possibly random testing for Covid-19. At present, arrivals in Ireland only have to fill in a passenger locator form and agree to self-isolate for a fortnight.
And the pubs aren’t opening as planned?
No. Pubs that don’t serve food were supposed to be reopening on Monday July 20th but that has now been pushed back until August 10th as health officials raised concerns about an increase in Covid-19 infections. The move was described as a kick in the teeth by publicans.
Was anything else delayed?
Yes, proposals to permit larger gatherings of 100 people indoors, up from 50, and 500 people outdoors, up from 200, will also not proceed as earlier planned while the Government has extended the mandatory wearing of face coverings to shops, shopping centres and retail workers where there is no protective screen or a two-metre distance between them and their customers. The rise in the number of infections from "unrestricted house parties" has led the Government to recommend social visits to other people's homes be limited to 10 visitors from no more than four households.
And who is going to police that particular recommendation?
At a guess, no-one. The idea that the Garda would have the resources or the inclination to call to someone’s house if they saw some class of gathering taking place and start checking numbers and names and addresses seems outlandish.
Can you tell me what is happening with masks?
Wearing face masks on public transport is already mandatory and is to become mandatory in indoor spaces such as shops and shopping centres.
But do they work?
When it comes to something like Covid-19 giving a definitive answer to almost anything is a challenge but we do know that masks do not completely protect people from getting the virus. Masks most likely do, however, push transmission down to controllable levels.
Do we have any evidence to back that up?
We do. According to one US study, when 80 per cent of a closed population wear a mask, infection rates statistically drop to approximately one-twelfth the number of infections compared to "a live-virus population" where no masks were worn. Then there is the University of Edinburgh study which found masks can limit how far exhaled breath travels out by up to 90 per cent. There is also a third study which found the daily growth rate of infections fell by 40 per cent after mask use was made compulsory in the German city of Jena. There are more studies. A lot more. The bottom line is wearing a mask does little harm to anyone - save for those who medically can not wear a mask - and have the potential to do a whole lot of good.
So, is August 10th as the last exit from lockdown now definitive?
Not even remotely. The final phase of the Government’s roadmap to unlock the Irish economy from coronavirus restrictions may be pushed out beyond August 10th. The Tánaiste told the Dáil on Wednesday that pubs may remain closed beyond that date. He said pubs, nightclubs and other venues will open “no sooner than 10th August. We are not saying they will open on 10th August.” And he stressed that it depends “on how the virus behaves” and the numbers of coronavirus cases which were rising.
Could we go back a few steps?
Absolutely. If the number of cases of Covid-19 rises to more than 100 per day, Ireland there could return to Phase 2 of restrictions, the director of the national virus laboratory, Dr Cillian De Gascun has warned. "It is just a concern at this stage," he said on Friday. "The R number can be affected by a few large clusters. It's not as if cases are popping up all over the country. If there's widespread community transmission of the virus, then it will get into schools, into residential care facilities, and into nursing homes - but if we can stamp it out in the community, that's how we protect everybody," he told RTÉ radio's Today with Sarah McInerney. He also advised young people to avoid house parties especially where there is singing.
Yes, it emerged on Thursday that a cluster of cases had recently arisen from a microphone used for karaoke at a house party in Co Derry Singing; it was one of the easiest ways to spread the virus because of the spray of droplets, Dr De Gascun said.
What is happening with schools, the Leaving Cert, university and all the rest?
To say there is still uncertainty about what will happen to Ireland’s student body come September is an understatement up there with “Covid is a nasty dose all the same”. The plan as it stands is to reopen schools in September as normal and guidelines on how that will happen will be published in the coming days. More than 60,000 Leaving Cert students will this year receive their grades several weeks later than normal on September 7th with CAO offers for college places issued four days later on September 11th, which means many students may not start their third-level courses until October.
And what is happening on the economic front?
Next week the Government will publish the snappily-named July Stimulus. It is the Government's centrepiece policy to try to re-stoke the economy after four months of near standstill during the coronavirus pandemic. The Department of Social Protection said on Monday that the numbers receiving the pandemic unemployment payment had now reduced by 42 per cent, or by more than 250,000 since the peak of nearly 600,000 in early May. It said that 345,000 people would receive the Covid-19 unemployment payment this week, a drop of 67,300 on last week.
What’s the story with the wage subsidy scheme?
Mr Varadkar has said continuing the wage subsidy scheme, and commercial rates waiver, until the end of 2020 will be central considerations of the July Stimulus. Mr Varadkar has also said he will consider extending the wage subsidy scheme - which is due to come to an end on October 31st - to seasonal workers and others who might not have been on the payroll last February. He also indicated a reboot of the already-operational restart grant for businesses.
Something big is happening in Brussels this weekend?
Yes, EU leaders are meeting to discuss a €750 billion recovery plan to fight the worst recession in a century. The leaders will also discuss the EU's next seven-year budget. A group of so-called frugal states led by the Netherlands want cut to the €750 billion and believe the money should be distributed as loans. The European Commission has proposed borrowing on financial markets to raise the money for the fund, which would then largely be distributed to member states in grants that would not need to be directly repaid.
What is happening with Covid in other parts of the world?
The crisis is getting worse in many parts of the world and even in places which were thought to have largely brought the pandemic under control, there are spikes still happening. On Thursday the US reported a record 77,300 new coronavirus cases , the highest one-day total for the pandemic so far. It is by far the worst-affected country worldwide with almost 3.6 million confirmed infections and 138,358 fatalities. Brazil is next highest with 2,012,151 cases and 76,688 deaths. The state of Victoria in Australia has just reported a record 428 new cases, 10 days in to a lockdown of Melbourne while the neighbouring state of New South Wales has tightened restrictions on pubs, restaurants and gatherings. The residents of three districts in a Barcelona suburb have been told they must stay indoors amid a resurgence in cases while Lerida in the north east of Catalonia, which is home to 160,000 people, is now in lockdown after a surge in new infections.
And how are we doing with the vaccine?
The global race to develop a vaccine is continuing apace with several candidates leading the charge. Dr Anthony Fauci, of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said one could be ready at the end of the year, although others have said that may be optimistic.
Moderna’s potential Covid-19 vaccine produced immune responses in patients in the early stage trial, according to results published in a peer-reviewed journal this week. The US biotech company’s vaccine candidate produced antibodies in all 45 participants in the first cohort of the phase one trial run by the National Institutes of Health, while the paper said there were no safety problems that could curtail further trials.
The trial showed that 15 days after the first dose, all participants had produced antibodies. After 57 days, the participants had on average more antibodies than a group of 38 recovered patients, whose symptoms were mainly mild or moderate. There are other companies not far behind but the next stage will be wider trials and then wider ones. And only then will vaccines be produced after which the scramble to get the doses will start.