Ireland had EU’s most stringent lockdown this year, analysis finds

Lax travel restrictions may have been ‘weak link’ in Covid defences, say UCD academics

Ireland closed workplaces and businesses ‘much longer and tougher’ than any other European country. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Ireland closed workplaces and businesses ‘much longer and tougher’ than any other European country. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

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Ireland’s Covid-19 lockdown has been the most stringent in the European Union this year, an analysis by two University College Dublin academics finds.

Since the start of the pandemic, Ireland has had the third most stringent restrictions of 42 countries whose public health measures were compared as part of their research.

Only Italy and the UK have put in place tougher rules since March of last year, say Prof Stephan Köppe and Robert Cazaciuc, of the college’s social and public policy departments.

Ireland closed workplaces and businesses “much longer and tougher” than any other European country, their analysis states. Public transport restrictions in Ireland were in the top five and stay-at-home requirements and school closures were in the top 10.

The returning Irish diaspora, desperate to visit loved ones over Christmas, might have fuelled the surge of the virus back then, more than in other countries

However, Ireland’s rules on international travel were “very lax” throughout last year and were only tightened after the Christmas travel “debacle”, the two academics state.

Despite having the toughest restrictions in Europe between January and March, Ireland suffered the highest incidence of Covid-19 and, they say, the health system was “on the brink of collapse”.

Death rate

It is too early to say whether tight restrictions contributed to the low overall death rate, they said.

“It has been argued that the relative young age profile of the Irish population might have kept the mortality rate down, despite the virus circulating relatively freely in December.

“On the other hand, the returning Irish diaspora, desperate to visit loved ones over Christmas, might have fuelled the surge of the virus back then, more than in other countries.

“Despite the overall tight restrictions, lax international travel rules might have been the weak link in our Covid defences.”

Ireland has a “very poor record” in enforcing “permissive” quarantine and travel restrictions, they also argue.

The researchers, who have built an online dashboard to illustrate stringency of restrictions internationally, contrast the Government’s emphasis on reopening schools this spring with the “relatively late” reopening in the first wave.

Weakly

Ireland scores relatively weakly on travel restrictions, testing policies and contact tracing during the third lockdown, they say.

“These apparent flaws in health service-related indicators may contribute to the stubbornly high case rate across the country, despite shutting down the country with relative blunt containment instruments.”

We also do not know yet if the tighter restrictions were more effective in keeping the population safe or the economy rolling

The “Golfgate” controversy involving former EU commissioner Phil Hogan was “the exception rather than the norm”.

“Such public outcries highlighted the lack of enforcement across the country and everyone driving through check points played along with the charade associated with tough rules and weak enforcement,” they argue.

“We also do not know yet if the tighter restrictions were more effective in keeping the population safe or the economy rolling.”

As to whether stringent lockdown has paid off, the academics say this will be known only when most of the population has been vaccinated and “this is all over”.

“Regardless of whether we cheer the Irish success regarding managing the pandemic or drink down the poor Government record with sorrow in a pub, at least we know then that it is over.”

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