Covid-19: Government fears public believes it has lost control

Sharp rise in infections stuns Ministers and sparks fears they will be blamed

The first wave also froze the economy and created a host of social problems, which we are now faced with once again. Photograph: Tom Honan

Government business restarts this week with the coalition facing its worst crisis since its formation. The explosion in Covid-19 infections has stunned Ministers and sparked fears that they will be blamed for it.

There is now a general fear across Government about what the coming weeks will bring. People talk about the prospect of the hospitals being overwhelmed with new cases and intensive care units running out of beds in a way reminiscent of the frightening days of March and April, when the virus first hit and the scenes from northern Italy – where hospitals buckled under the pressure and the army was called in to help remove bodies – haunted politicians and senior medics alike.

The speed of the deterioration has been stunning, with daily numbers accelerating from 400 a day to more than 4,000 in the past fortnight. Officials and Ministers are bracing themselves for worse.

Hospital Report

In the second wave, which hit in October and November, the high-water mark for daily cases was about 1,200, but hospital numbers stayed in the 300-400 range, with ICU numbers generally 30-40. And while there were fatalities, there was little or no increase in excess mortality during the period.

READ MORE

The experience of the second wave convinced the Government that the inevitable rise in cases when social and economic life was reopened at the start of December would be similarly manageable, and similarly controllable by the reintroduction of more strict restrictions in late December or early January.

Health service fears

Instead, the third wave seems more similar to the first, when the health service was threatened with being overrun and a long hard lockdown suppressed the virus over time.

The first wave also froze the economy and created a host of social problems, from isolation to domestic violence, which we are now faced with once again. Every single Government source who spoke privately on Sunday did not expect schools to reopen on the week beginning January 11th.

The contingency plans put in place in the early part of last year for the health service are being dusted down. Discussions with private hospitals to provide “surge capacity” are at an advanced stage; the Citywest Hotel and complex in Dublin will also be used if needed.

Nevertheless, the Government will find it hard to avoid the perception that it has lost control of the situation. Ministers will consider additional restrictions later this week, but one source wondered if there was really much more to tighten up.

Ministers hope that a drastic reduction in personal contacts will bring the spread of the disease under control in the next two weeks, but they simply do not know if the measures will be enough to stop hospitals from being overwhelmed. They know there will be a political reckoning for this, too.

Ministers also hope that the vaccination campaign will proceed without hiccups and will offer a counterpoint to the situation in the hospitals, but even the most optimistic projections say that it will be “slow and steady”.

It would be hard to imagine a gloomier beginning to the year.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times