Coronavirus plan sees Ireland embark on vast social experiment

Unlike in the UK, policymakers here felt they had only one option: strike hard now

You have to go back to the second World War to look for parallels to the events unfolding in Ireland and across much of Europe.

Certainly, there has been nothing in this writer’s lifetime to match the breadth and severity of the measures just introduced by the Government to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Neither is there much in our recent experience to match the speed with which events have unfolded, and the speed with which the threat has escalated.

Earlier this week, Ministers indicated Ireland would publish its national plan for tackling Covid-19 next Monday. This was already late in the day; Britain published its plan 10 days ago.

A plan will provide an anxious public with a route map for dealing with the crisis and show how the Government plans to proceed through the stages to meet, and ultimately see off, the threat posed by the disease.


Unfortunately, the situation is worsening so fast that there was no time to wait for publication of the plan before introducing a widespread shutdown of public services and restrictions on public gatherings.

This sudden change of pace was further underlined when Ministers on Thursday morning announced the closure of schools and creches countrywide for the rest of the month.

About the same time, the Health Service Executive was publishing a guide to “Getting your school, college or educational setting ready for Covid-19”. This document will not be needed for a bit.

The Government and public health officials are talking about leaving the present state, when we were trying to contain the virus, to now enter a “delay” phase. There was no talk of a delay phase in the early pronouncement by the experts, who said we would move from containment to mitigation if demanded by circumstances, but the idea seems to have been borrowed from the British plan.

Whatever about the phrasing, these measures are drastic and, as Ministers acknowledged, they raise many questions. Closing schools and creches, for example, gives rise to massive childcare challenges for many families. Some parents will have to stop working in order to plug the gaps. Losing healthcare workers as a result would be the equivalent of shooting ourselves in the foot.

Will closing schools be effective?

And simply shutting the schools is not an answer in itself. Children can become vectors of the disease outside the classroom too, unless they follow the rules of correct hygiene and social distancing. The threat to elderly relatives could rise rather than fall, as a result.

The move to pull the shutters down on much of public life was triggered by an upsurge in confirmed cases in recent days, as well as the nature of some of the cases we have. Covid-19 cut a swath through hospitals in Limerick and Cork over the past week, infecting staff and patients and forcing hundreds of contacts into self-isolation.

There have been two cases of community transmission, which means we don’t know the source of the infection in these cases. Doctors have been saying for days there is much more out there than has been recorded because we have not been testing widely enough.

With computer modelling predicting a rapid rise in cases, it was clear the always stretched Irish health system would be overloaded within weeks. Meanwhile, the disease was gaining a firm foothold across continental Europe, now the new epicentre of this disease.

This left policymakers feeling they had only one option: strike hard now in the hope this will delay the onset of cases, delay the spike in admissions and curb the spread of the disease.

In the United Kingdom a different approach is being taken. This seems to involve an acceptance of some community transmission, at least at levels with which the National Health Service can cope. Consequently, the social restrictions being imposed are far less intrusive, so far.

For now, the Irish public is fully behind the Government’s restrictions. The social distancing and hygiene messages have been clearly communicated and, hopefully, clearly understood. People seem to be up for the vast social experiment involved, whether it involves distance learning or remote working.

Whether that remains the case if weeks turn into months remains to be seen.