Explainer: Will the increase in Delta variant impact the reopening?

Spike in Covid variant leads to fresh questions about further easing of restrictions

A spike in the Delta variant of Covid-19 has led to fresh questions over Government plans to relax pandemic restrictions. But just what is going on?

Why are we talking about this now?

Until recently, the Delta variant accounted for a relatively small percentage of the Covid-19 cases being diagnosed in Ireland – around five per cent. However, on Monday, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said there is a "concerning increase" in transmission of the variant, which is more infectious and resistant to incomplete courses of vaccines. On Tuesday, one coalition source said there was a sense of "deja vu" around, with the Government again faced with the rise of a new variant with increased transmissability, just like at the end of last year.

So is reopening off the cards?

No – or, at least, not yet. The Government has been very clear that as of now, the plan is to reopen indoor dining and drinking on July 5th, and international travel on July 19th. One cabinet source said today that there is “some concern” about Delta, but “not at the level that would halt reopening”. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has also said there are no plans to delay further reopening, and that it is “so far, so good”.

It’s all going to be fine then?

Not necessarily. While some in Government are bullish, there's definitely an edge of nervousness creeping in as well. There is particular concern about cross-border transmission, with high levels of Delta found in Derry. The Government is anxious to keep to the timetable, but not at any cost. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was said to have struck a cautious note when updating the cabinet today. Across Government attention is shifting to the next advice due to issue from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet). Multiple sources agree: if they advise against reopening, it will be difficult for the coalition to forge ahead.

What happens next?

All this increases the focus on next week's Nphet meeting, provisionally scheduled for Thursday, and the cabinet decisions that will follow. The rise in Delta diagnoses doesn't automatically reverse recent positive momentum. Overall cases are low and the pressure on the hospital system isn't significant. Our vaccine programme is more reliant on mRNA vaccines which have shown better protection after one dose against Delta. Meanwhile, a more conservative approach to spacing of doses of AstraZeneca and an accelerated rollout of this shot means we should get full AstraZeneca coverage by the end of next month. And, as Leo Varadkar said last week, the Government is unlikely to take Nphet's advice on restricting travel to the vaccinated, so there remains a chance it could turn down other advice.

But – and there’s always a but – the Government is still haunted by the spectre of the meaningful Christmas. A delay now would help more complete cover among those receiving AstraZeneca, and potentially protect a lot of younger people not yet vaccinated who work in or will be using indoor dining. Any delay would lead to uproar from the hospitality sector, but the Government has been neither shy about providing payments for the sector or living with that backlash as background noise.

There is also a belief among senior sources that notwithstanding the volume of complaints from industry, people in general would accept a slightly slower reopening if it could be proven effective in controlling for a dangerous variant. The fact that this is happening during summer, when outdoor socialising and dining offer plenty of possibilities for people, might also favour a more cautious approach to reopening indoor dining. Meanwhile, the prospect of reopening leading to a surge in infection and perhaps some backsliding – if not a return to full lockdown – would undermine one of the Government’s key undertakings: that what reopens, stays open.