Mandatory hotel quarantine the unloved child of this Government

Thousands of cancelled AstraZeneca appointments forced significant restructuring of vaccine programme

Micheál Martin: There will be mounting pressure from outside and inside Government to unwind restrictions, which must be managed.  Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Micheál Martin: There will be mounting pressure from outside and inside Government to unwind restrictions, which must be managed. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

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Despite what one source described as “the rockiest week in the history of rocky weeks”, the prevailing view in Government is that Ireland is nonetheless facing into a new, better phase of the pandemic.

“We have been floating on this ocean for the last year, and eventually land is in sight. We’re not sure what it’ll be like when we get there, but at least it’s in sight,” says a senior source.

However, the past week indicates that the waters between us and that landfall may be choppy.

Thousands of appointments were cancelled as changes to the use of AstraZeneca forced a significant restructuring of the State’s vaccine programme.

There are doubts, too, around the extent of the role to be played by the single-shot J&J vaccine. That means that Pfizer and its mRNA stablemates (Moderna, and others if they are approved) may end up being the engine of the rest of the vaccination programme.

With their innovative but intricate technology and complex storage demands, it was never envisaged that these vaccines would be the workhorse of the campaign, but that may be what comes to pass.

The HSE, planning without J&J in mind, expects to vaccinate the vulnerable by the start of June. That will start a race for the finish line as vaccination opens up the general population on an age-based approach.

The credibility of the Government’s plan to give 80 per cent of the adult population a first shot will hang in the balance, and much depends on the timing of the 545,000-dose Pfizer bailout due this quarter, as well as the ongoing reliability of scheduled deliveries. Any role in June for AstraZeneca and J&J will be considered a bonus.

However, widespread protection from vaccines by the end of June is still realistic, as are all the benefits that come with it. There will be mounting pressure from outside and inside Government to unwind restrictions, which must be managed.

Tricky challenges

Difficulties surrounding the mandatory hotel quarantine (MHQ) system are more vexed.

Tricky policies like this will likely be a more permanent feature as Irish pandemic policy moves to a less acute phase. MHQ is the unloved child of this Government, with widespread frustration after a week which saw its capacity buckle, and rapid revisions to exemptions announced following pressure from EU member states and the Commission itself.

How the Government navigates tricky challenges like these, by turn politically combustible and fiendishly complicated, will say much about its capacity to govern when the threats it faces are less existential.

In some ways, this is a Government that has been forced together by threats; from the prospect of Sinn Féin in government to the pandemic, the costs of total failure have always been too high to countenance, and that has provided what little momentum and unity of purpose the coalition has enjoyed.

If it makes landfall after more than a year on stormy waters, it faces many challenges in a world that will not be quite post-pandemic, but hopefully will not be as riddled with lockdowns and grim nightly tolls of death and disease.

Some of these challenges will still be pandemic-related, some will be old reliables – like non-Covid healthcare, housing and pensions – and some will be novel, such as putting together a meaningful and effective climate policy that will confront vested interests.

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