Slowly and tentatively, the Government is drawing up a plan for the reopening of the country after the current lockdown.
While political support for a zero-Covid strategy has grown and a Dáil debate on Wednesday showed that much of the Opposition favours at least the easy parts of it, the Government will not change its “living with Covid” strategy for zero-Covid.
Reopening will happen. Senior officials are quietly drawing up revisions to the National Framework for Living with Covid-19 and the three leaders, Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan, discussed aspects of the plan on Monday evening last. But it will be – in the mantra you’ll hear from every Minister in the coming weeks – “cautious and conservative”.
It would be hard to overstate the anxiety and nervousness in Government about it. But it is also true that most people in Government, backed by the advice of the public health experts on the National Public Health Emergency Team, do not see zero-Covid as a viable plan.
The view of many people in Government is that while there is support for the eventual benefits of zero-Covid – a society that can reopen fully, as New Zealand and Australia have done – there is considerably less enthusiasm for the measures needed to make that happen.
It would mean, at a minimum, a continuation of the current lockdown beyond March 5th, probably until the end of April (as one of its proponents, Prof Anthony Staines, has suggested). Given the certainty that the Northern Executive will not agree a joint approach with the Republic, it would mean strict controls at the Border – precisely what Dublin has been telling the EU is impossible for the past four years.
Perhaps tellingly, nobody in Wednesday’s Dáil debate had much to say about all that. But one aspect of the zero-Covid approach – the tightening of the country’s external borders – will happen as internal restrictions are eased.
The priorities have been pretty well advertised: special education, schools generally, construction, and then, says one Government source, we’ll see. The additional clampdown on external travel as represented by the mandatory hotel quarantine is seen within Government as a political necessity even more than a practical requirement.
The Government has, for economic reasons that are related principally to concerns about airline connectivity, been extremely reluctant to effectively shut the borders. That is changing. Expect the list of countries from which travellers are required to quarantine in a hotel to lengthen significantly.
Government is acutely aware that the December reopening is viewed – albeit in hindsight – as a mistake. It knows it cannot make the same mistake twice.
It also believes, however, that the country cannot remain in lockdown indefinitely. Senior officials already worry about fraying public observation of current restrictions. The economic cost mounts. The social cost is unquantified, but horrendous.
On Wednesday the Director of Public Prosecutions said there had been an 88 per cent increase in domestic violence cases, and the ones that go as far as the DPP are just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of the most vulnerable children are having their futures derailed by the lack of schooling. Reopening will be fraught and tentative. But it is viewed in Government as an absolute necessity.