The State will now be able to detain people and restrict travel. Should it do so?

‘Lockdown’ is the next step Ireland is likely to take to cement the effectiveness of last week’s measures

 More scientists are saying the disease has to be “stopped in its tracks” through restrictive measures such as a quarantine on all incoming travellers. Photograph: Getty Images

More scientists are saying the disease has to be “stopped in its tracks” through restrictive measures such as a quarantine on all incoming travellers. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The Oireachtas has passed emergency legislation giving the State sweeping powers to curtail human liberties with the aim of tackling the spread of coronavirus.

The Bill, expected to become law at the weekend, provides for the detention of people and restrictions on travel during the Covid-19 crisis.

Ministers have said repeatedly that they hope they never have to make use of the provisions of the legislation. But will they? Or, more pertinently, should they?

The public may think it is taking its medicine since schools and pubs were closed last week, mass gatherings banned and strict social distancing rules put in place. These measures have secured high levels of compliance, even at the cost of thousands of jobs.

However, more and more doctors and scientists here and abroad are calling for even stronger measures. The word “lockdown” is increasingly being used as the next step that Ireland should take in order to cement the effectiveness of the measures introduced last week.

Some countries have already gone further than Ireland despite acting later. In Spain, for example, people cannot leave their homes except for essential reasons such as food shopping or medical appointments. They cannot take their children out for a walk, and the country’s borders have been shut.

In the early stages of this crisis, public health doctors talked about containing the virus up to a point, and then following this phase with a mitigation phase as cases surged.

An intermediate stage, called the delay phase, was then inserted into official planning to reflect the current “calm before the storm” period. This is nearly over, and the moment of truth, when cases surge and hospitals fill up, is nearly upon us.

Suppression

However, since our early plans were laid the thinking has moved on internationally. Mitigation is now seen by many experts as a poor second best, and suppression is now the stated goal.

Experts have run the rule over the approach taken by China, which is now reporting no new “home-grown” cases each day, and by other Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, which are also succeeding in either keeping the virus at bay or sharply reducing the number of new cases.

“Go hard right now. Order heavy social distancing. Get this thing under control,” goes one widely-read online summary of how to suppress the disease.

“On one side countries can go the mitigation route: create a massive epidemic, overwhelm the healthcare system, drive the death of millions of people, and release new mutations of this virus in the wild,” says Thomas Pueyo, whose blogs distilling the research have been read tens of millions of times.

“On the other, countries can fight. They can lock down for a few weeks to buy us time, create an educated action plan, and control this virus until we have a vaccine.”

By now we’ve heard about “bending the curve” by reducing the surge of cases occurring at the same time – and thereby threatening to overload hospital – and spreading them out over a long period of time.

But what if the surge is a multiple of the capacity of hospitals and intensive care, as was posited by a paper by researchers at Imperial College London?

If that was the case no amount of gentle bending of the curve though mitigation measures will suffice. That paper predicted 250,000 people could die in the UK as a result.

Quarantine

This is why more and more scientists are saying the disease has to be “stopped in its tracks” through restrictive measures such as a quarantine on all incoming travellers to a country. This would buy time for health services to save lives; in this period more equipment can be procured, more treatment possibilities tried out and, possibly, vaccines developed.

The Imperial College paper scared many people by suggesting that a second outbreak might follow once strict control measures were lifted. Other researchers rejected this finding, saying the paper failed to take account of the impact effective contact-tracing and monitoring could make.

Pueyo says “strong coronavirus measures today should only last a few weeks, there shouldn’t be a big peak of infections afterwards, and it can all be done for a reasonable cost to society, saving millions of lives along the way”.

Ireland has put in place a range of measures which it has left to the discretion of citizens to decide whether to follow or not. We face a particular difficulty in that the UK, our nearest neighbour and the other side of our common travel area, is taking a different, and erratic, tack on the issue.

This week the only cases of Covid-19 reported in China are those brought in from other countries. Ireland might want to bear this in mind as it decides what to do next.