Coronavirus: Zero-Covid approach grows in political popularity

Position of all parties has changed since Christmas over previously marginal concept

Gardaí operate a Covid-19 checkpoint at the entrance to Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport. File photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin

Gardaí operate a Covid-19 checkpoint at the entrance to Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport. File photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin

 

For much of 2020, the concept of zero-Covid remained marginal in political thought in Ireland. A small number of prominent people argued for it – notably Tomás Ryan, associate professor in the school of biochemistry and immunology at Trinity College Dublin, and Sam McConkey, expert in infectious diseases at the Royal College of Surgeons – but of all the parties, only the far-left grouping encompassing People Before Profit, Rise and Solidarity fully embraced the concept form an early sage.

Several countries – notably New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, and Vietnam – adopted the sharp restrictions early and then reaped the benefits. In the past few weeks, we have seen full stadiums watching rugby internationals in New Zealand and tens of thousands of people attending the Australian Open tennis tournament.

The argument that held most sway here throughout most of 2020 was that Ireland could not be compared to those countries – all of which were self-sustaining and did not have the complex nexus of connections the State has with the North, with Britain and with Europe. Zero-Covid was just not achievable in Ireland, unless we sealed off the Border with the North – with all the political imponderable that would entail.

But the position of all parties – including those in Government – has changed since Christmas with all moving closer to a zero-Covid position.

However, most are still falling shy of adopting such an all-embracing approach.

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd-Barrett reiterated the zero-Covid approach yesterday. Mandatory quarantine is the key to it. Afterwards, he said: “it means eliminating community transmission and having the public health apparatus to deal with outbreaks in the way they are doing very successfully in New Zealand and Australia”.

However, when Boyd-Barrett was asked would it mean sealing the Border to the North, he insisted there was no need to talk about the North-South Border. “The key issues is to have zones which don’t correspond particularly to North-South. But when pressed he said: “Im in favour of a zero-Covid strategy on an all-island basis which would then mean preventing non-essential travel in our own country . . . of course, the ideal is an all-island integrated strategy.”

That ideal is shared by all the parties, including those in Government. But most of the others have based their policy on the reality that the kind of North-South co-operation that would be required for zero-Covid is not possible.

Hospital Report

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“Optimally an all-island strategy using the sea as our protection would have been the best strategy. Politics has failed. It is not going to happen,” said Labour leader Alan Kelly.

A year into the pandemic there is not even a basic agreement between South and North on data-sharing of passenger-locator forms.

It is Labour that is bringing forward the motion in the Dáil on Wednesday calling for what it calls a National Aggressive Suppression Strategy. It also includes universal quarantine in hotels for all incoming passengers who are not travelling for essential purposes.

Asked what he meant by the strategy, Mr Kelly said its aim was to get the case numbers down to the low double digits. “Then you have public health teams – that are resourced – and can act Panzer-like in dealing with a virus outbreak [when it occurs in a locality].”

Sinn Féin’s policy is “maximum suppression”, according to heath spokesman David Cullinane. That also involves robust port and airport quarantines and a big emphasis on testing and contact tracing, as well as rapid rollout of vaccines.

“For us it is test and trace and isolate and vaccinate,” he said.

Once numbers come down, his party argues there should be serial testing on a regular basis plus rapid responses – involving testing and tracing – to local outbreaks.

In the absence of an all-island agreement, that would also involve a strong police presence at the Border to ensure only those on essential journey are travelling over 5km.

And finally to the Social Democrats. That party’s policies are almost indistinguishable from other Opposition parties, but like People Before Profit, they describe it as zero-Covid. Party co-leaders Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy have been campaigning for tougher passenger restrictions for many months.

“People have a misconception about zero-Covid,” Ms Shortall said. Her party aim is to drive the daily rates down to close to zero figures. “We achieved it last July when it was down to four people per day,” she said.

“Once the numbers are down you have strong border controls and a strong testing and contact tracing system It’s a short sharp lockdown, but the rewards are enormous. The alternative is the Government’s strategy of rolling lockdowns.”

Ms Shortall acknowledges the North is a challenge and the ideal would be full alignment. She believes the tough new restrictions announced for the UK will help towards convergence. In the absence of it, she says, intensive policing on the borders will be necessary.

While Opposition parties use different terms, their position on the Covid-19 strategy is separated more by nuance than principle. Bigger gaps in opinion might appear once dates begin to be flagged for the reopening of society – some parties will caution for a much later reopening.

Even within Government there are TDs who want the measures to be much stricter and for full mandatory hotel quarantine to be introduced. This group include Fine Gael’s Simon Harris, Neasa Hourigan of the Greens and Christopher O’Sullivan of Fianna Fáil.