Government message on reopening: we’ll have to figure it out as we go

Living with Covid will mean substantial infection numbers for the foreseeable future

Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

With the cautious lifting of restrictions at a time when cases are galloping, the outlines of what “living with Covid” will mean are becoming clear. Tuesday’s announcement that Friday’s reopening would go ahead, but with terms and conditions, signalled two things: firstly, this is going to be a make-it-up-as-they-go-along operation; secondly, living with Covid is going to mean living with substantial amounts of Covid for the foreseeable future.

The press conference at Government Buildings was the first sign. When the inevitable questions arrived, the three Coalition leaders acknowledged them, but answers there were few. To some of the questions about how the next phase of reopening would work, given the continuing restrictions in some areas, they more or less shrugged: sure we were wondering that ourselves.

This is very different to similar events in the past. Previously when the Government was announcing either reopening or restrictions, the three leaders would seek to be prepared for every question. They had a worked-out plan and they wanted to share it. How will it work? Here’s how it will work. When will that happen? This is when that will happen.

This time, however, it’s different. The message is: we’ll have to figure it out as we go along. “Anomalies” was the word of the day. An anomaly is when you can go to the bar in a nightclub, but not in a pub. And it’s far from the only one.

That is not very satisfactory if you are looking forward to opening your nightclub in two days’ time, or even attending it. Hospitality business owners have been asking questions since Tuesday.

They will get some of – but not all – the answers they are looking for when industry representatives meet Government officials on Wednesday.

“Look, there will be differences between sectors, that’s inevitable,” said one person involved in the discussions in Government. “None of this is black and white.”

Nightclubs

The decision to reopen nightclubs was taken in the knowledge that an extension of the nightclub lockdown would see many venues in the sector go out of business permanently. In other words, the Government weighed up the economic effects of continuing with the restrictions and decided that a potential increase in Covid cases was an acceptable price to pay for avoiding them. Nphet and Dr Tony Holohan explicitly considered the option of continuing the restrictions but were unable to say that things would be any different in a few weeks. The industry made it clear to Government that not opening now could mean not opening at all.

The Government does not spell this out explicitly, but insiders accept that this is the trade-off at the heart of living with Covid. They accept that living with Covid will mean living with lots of Covid – that the numbers of cases will continue to rise for a few weeks, that hospitalisations will climb for another month or so, and that the ICU numbers will get, perhaps, dangerously close to capacity.

All that implies something else that nobody talks about in Government: deaths from Covid will rise in the coming weeks. If living with Covid involves an acceptable level of the disease in the community, then it also involves a level of deaths that people are willing to accept in order to avoid reimposing restrictions and lockdowns.

What is that level of deaths? That is a question nobody has yet really approached, inside or outside Government. In the last week it was 63, and that has not caused a public or political outcry. But the numbers are likely to rise in the coming weeks. So is it 50 a week? 100? The question will not be avoidable forever. The management of Covid has entered a new and uncharted phase.

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