Discovering seriousness of new Covid variant will be key to Ireland’s response

Striking a balance to suppress Covid set to become more challenging than ever

As is so often the case with Covid-19, things are happening all at once, and the most precious commodity is time. The prospect of a new variant which could further complicate an already dynamic situation presents a huge challenge for the State’s pandemic policy, which was already in a state of flux.

The most immediate threat is the new variant, if it proves to be a serious problem, as many believe it will. Europe – and Ireland – will act as though it is, believing it is better to be too conservative and proven wrong. This means tightening up travel to affected regions, something which has de facto already happened for Ireland, as the UK is the main gateway for us to those parts of the world, and it has pulled the shutters down already.

However, it seems that this variant has already been detected in Europe. Save for severing travel links within and into Europe, it is a matter of time before more cases are imported and transmitted within the EU.

Time for boosters, time to vaccinate children, and perhaps time to suppress the already elevated levels of Covid in the community here could all be vital

If it is significantly more transmissible than the currently dominant Delta variant, it would seem to be a matter of time before it becomes the predominant strain.

Time is the key factor here. The Government’s view is that its mandatory hotel quarantine system (MHQ) slowed the march of Delta here, giving more time for vaccination. We could get some version of this again, but that’s not straightforward.

There are legislative implications – the law enabling MHQ has expired. Not to mention the potential diplomatic bunfight of obligating travellers from other European countries to stay in hotels if they choose to come here. And finally, the logistical effort of stepping up the system and making sure it runs well would be significant.

Other methods of putting a brake on the introduction of the new variant into Ireland may prove preferable – reintroducing mandatory PCR testing for travellers, even when vaccinated, could be an option, mixed with some form of home quarantine obligation.

Time for boosters, time to vaccinate children, and perhaps time to suppress the already elevated levels of Covid in the community here could all be vital, if we are to be hit with yet another problematic variant. Finding out just how dangerous this variant is will be key, and will set the rules for everything that follows.

The situation is complicated further by the wider changes that were under way in how Ireland manages Covid

There are questions, too, for Ireland's domestic policy beyond travel. A lockdown-lite for children was unexpectedly advised on Thursday, a day after chief medical officer Tony Holohan intimated to opposition politicians that no major shifts were likely. It's true that this isn't a significant change of the order of magnitude of a new society-wide lockdown, but try telling parents, caregivers and others that it's not a big deal. It shows that public health advice can and will continue to present challenges and changes for people and Government.

The question is whether more aggressive domestic curbs will be seen as required due to either the threat of the new variant, or the pre-existing situation here, or how the two might combine.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) and the Government have, so far, sought to curtail not cancel social contact, with one part restriction and two parts messaging. Whether that course is held – and whether nerves are held – is now the question. What is beyond doubt is that pressure will ramp up even more on the vaccination programme, which once again moves centre stage.

The situation is complicated further by the wider changes that were under way in how Ireland manages Covid. The current wave struck when Ireland was hopeful of moving out of the acute phase of the crisis, dismantling the structures and systems (such as Nphet, the vaccine taskforce, the testing system) that had been central so far. The wave put that on the back-burner, but the Government had been trying to move through it without recourse to lockdowns – figuring out in real time how a big wave of infection interacts with vaccination and less crude public health measures.

Finally, Christmas is coming down the tracks like a train, with its heady combination of travel, socialisation and inter-generational mixing, combined with a war-weary public and an under-pressure hospital system. As many factors collide all at once, striking the right balance will be more challenging than ever.