We are shutting schools, leaving off-licences open as old questions remain

Coronavirus vaccine the only game in town to end lockdown cycle

Politicians don’t do panic, not officially, but there was more than a touch of desperation to the latest responses of the Irish and British governments to surging Covid-19 case numbers.

Both Micheál Martin and Boris Johnson were forced on Wednesday to pull down the shutters on society given the paucity of alternative ways they have of tackling the virus.

Almost a year since we started fighting the disease, lockdown remains the fallback response of politicians when they can no longer ignore the warnings delivered by public health officials.

Hospital Report

With the decision to delay the reopening of schools in the Republic, the final plank in the Government’s strategy for tackling Covid-19 has been swept away.


Ministers may contend that the delay is just for a few days, but we have heard a similar refrain before in relation to the closure of schools and the length of lockdowns generally.

As a nation we are now shutting our schools and depriving our students of a proper education, while at the same time leaving off-licences open. This even though alcohol has repeatedly been identified as a driver of unsafe socialisation and although the biggest rises in case numbers are occurring in 18- to 34-year-olds, traditionally the biggest consumers of alcohol.

The same criticisms can be made of Martin’s speech as were made about previous announcements by taoisigh. No mention of effective quarantine arrangements, for example, or measures to tackle the Border issue.

Border counties

While case numbers are rising across the country, they are highest now in three Border counties – Donegal, Monaghan and Louth. This has been the trend for months yet no meaningful action has been taken until this month thanks to lockdown decisions in both jurisdictions.

And while Johnson’s government may have made a hames of responding to the crisis for much of this year, the UK appears to be leading the way in terms of vaccine approval and genetic research into the virus.

Most care-home residents in the North have already been vaccinated, while the Republic’s vaccination programme in nursing homes only starts next week.

This new lockdown will work to a point. Things will get worse for a while, then improve. But then what?

The UK has now approved two vaccines while Ireland waits for decisions from the European Medicines Agency, which has taken a more "relaxed" approach to authorisations without any visible benefit so far.

At this stage it is unclear whether the new UK and South African variants of the virus are as much a threat as they have been made out to be, but if this does prove the case we will be indebted to the work of scientists in London and Porton Down, not Brussels.

This new lockdown will work to a point. The Christmas effect will wear off; most people will hole themselves up for January. Things will get worse for a while, then improve.

But then what?

The old questions remain; what do you do then? Do you lift restrictions at the end of January, just as we did at the start of this month? Or do you continue the lockdown into the spring, with all that entails?

Single digits

There is no prospect, given the suite of measures being applied, the failings in quarantine and other areas, and the declining compliance in sections of the population, of eliminating the virus or reducing numbers to, say, single digits.

Ireland, it has to be said, is not alone in Europe is facing this conundrum. Many countries with previously good track-records have fallen by the wayside; including ourselves, with currently the fastest growth in cases on the continent.

It follows that the only game in town from now on is the vaccine. Should we go down the emergency authorisation route used by the UK? Should we focus on giving the maximum number of people a first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, rather than holding two doses for a smaller group?

We have to show alacrity and agility in rolling out what options there are if we are to hope to lift the shutters again early(ish) in 2021.