Covid-19: Cautious signals of the beginning of the end

Cases remain high, fears persist and U-turns may loom but nation breathes sigh of relief

Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Government Buildings: An evaluation of the State’s Covid-19 response should be undertaken. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Taoiseach Micheál Martin at Government Buildings: An evaluation of the State’s Covid-19 response should be undertaken. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

It feels, for the first time, like the beginning of the end.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s televised address to the nation from the steps of Government Buildings, as has become the norm during the Covid-19 pandemic, signalled what none of its many predecessors did: that the end is in sight.

Our social interactions and economic life will not return to a pre-pandemic normal soon or perhaps ever, but the restrictions that have corralled people’s lives for 18 months are on the way out. By the end of October, if all goes to plan, most of them will be gone.

It won’t be the end of masks or of voluntary social distancing or Covid-19 patients in hospital or keeping an eye on the numbers of daily cases or doctors on the radio or any of the rest of it. But it will mean the end of Covid-19 dominating absolutely everything else. Breathe a sigh of relief.

It might not, of course, be quite as plain sailing as that. Reopening is not without risk, and nor can it be. Case numbers are high, and senior officials who spoke about it in recent days say they expect that trend to continue. And though modelling by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) suggests that the expected rise in infections will be manageable in terms of hospitalised cases, there are significant concerns in Nphet the whole thing might be moving too quickly.

Nphet delay

In discussions in recent days, Nphet is said to have favoured delaying for a few weeks; the view of the politicians was that the public had waited long enough.

But there is also plenty of anxiety about. Covid has an unblemished record of confounding any satisfaction and sense of progress. Germany, Israel, the UK, Ireland – all found that mild hubris was soon followed by savage nemesis.

A government praised for deft management and wise decision-making inevitably finds itself criticised for recklessness and bad judgment before long. Even Australia and New Zealand – long hailed for their success in shutting out the virus – now find they are under siege from Covid, with low vaccination rates preventing opening their borders. There is no easy way of dealing with the pandemic – every strategy has its drawbacks; there are no easy answers.

And if the increase in cases in the coming weeks turns out to be greater than expected, or a new variant arrives, then you can be pretty sure the brakes will be applied. Being willing to perform U-turns is an important tool to use against the virus.

Performance assessment

The end of the pandemic will mean the time for an assessment of Ireland’s performance is coming too. The Taoiseach has previously said that an evaluation of the State’s response should be undertaken by a group of experts. Now would be a good time to set out what that might look like.

For now, that looks like a mixed bag. We had many more deaths than some countries, but vastly less than half the mortality rate of our nearest neighbour. The Government was slow to grasp the nature of the challenge, and slow to react to its twists and turns. Better, smarter reactions and decision-making, especially early on and in relation to nursing homes, would have saved lives.

Despite the groundswell for reopening last December, it turned out to be disastrously timed. Against that must be acknowledged the extraordinary pressure that policymakers were under, and the unprecedented nature of the challenge they faced. And the vaccination programme and reopening so far have been tremendously successful.

But if there are holes to pick in the Government’s response, there is also the undeniable fact that the society-wide response to the pandemic demonstrated a high degree of social solidarity and coherence.

In an age where social bonds seem to be fraying everywhere, that is also worth noting with satisfaction.

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