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Covid-19: Time for Government to reassess strategy for tackling pandemic

Inside Politics: Restrictions have seemed endless and have been taking their toll on people

Ireland has now the lowest Covid-19 figures in the EU according to the EU Centre for Disease Prevention and Control

Ireland has now the lowest Covid-19 figures in the EU, according to the EU Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The 14-day figures are 88.5 per 100,000 compared with 96 for the next lowest, Finland, with its right-on government that has been the darling of liberal media.

Iceland remains lower, but it is closer to New Zealand and Australia, in terms of geographical detachment. We are part of a small island, which helps, but our connectedness to the North, Britain and the Continent is extensive. The fact that our rate and that of Finland is four times lower than the nearest other EU country is extraordinary. Some countries such as Slovenia, Croatia and Luxembourg are running at more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 over 14 days.

So for our statistics, we deserve a pat on the back.

But yet, but yet. As time has gone one, it has felt more and more like those arresting lyrics from the Eagles hit of a long long time ago: Hotel California - “You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.”

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The restrictions have seemed endless and have been taking their toll. This morning, senior executives from Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Island will tell the Oireachtas Committee on Tourism and Arts about the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the hospitality sector here, with many businesses facing insolvency.

Restrictions have continued for many months, and the Government supports, while generous, have just not been enough to keep heads above the water. Our page one report on it is here.

So if the news is so good, why does it feel so bad?

When Leo Varadkar came out fighting in October against Level 5 – although he subsequently retreated on his position – his most wounding comment was that those who were advocating more restrictions were in no danger themselves of losing jobs. That still remains the case.

I was in Cavan and Donegal last week and went through enough small towns to learn for myself how devastating this year has been for rural communities, which were already leaking their populations and businesses to the big urban centres. Businesses reopening this week will provide a big fillip, but it’s really hard on pubs.

The sentiment I noticed most with people last week was fatigue and weariness. I’m not so sure what the tolerance levels will be like for a third lockdown.

Our excellent colleague in Berlin, Derek Scally, had a very good report yesterday about how Germany is struggling with its responses, along with most EU countries.

He gave a fascinating account of a list the influential Bild tabloid has compiled of what it calls ‘Coronabsurdities’.

“In the busy travel holiday period, Germany’s Deutsche Bahn train company says it will only sell reservations for seats diagonally opposite - but not block off the other seats for travellers.

“No one could tell the newspaper either why masks are obligatory for all in supermarket car parks but not at petrol pumps.”

We have our own Coronabsurdities here. The silliest, in the latest list of restrictions, is that 50 people can go to Mass in a church while only 25 can attend a funeral in the same church.

Are there other ways of dealing with the virus?

The official response to lockdown here has been too narrow, too blunt. Orla Hegarty, an architect and UCD academic, wrote an intriguing piece for The Irish Times in October arguing that good ventilation in buildings is key in combating the spread of the disease.

She asked why no expert on buildings was on Nphet. What she wrote chimed with what the authoritative New York Times reporter Donald G McNeil Jr has advocated for the United States this winter – for the windows to be knocked out of public transport and for open windows to replace air conditioning in high rises.

Sure it’s going to be cold, but it’s better to be cold than to be sick. Indeed, as Prof Gabriel Scally also pointed out, his national school in Belfast was a perfect building in this regard as it had large rooms and large windows that were kept open. It was designed to avoid another highly infectious disease last century, TB. That the virus apparently spreads little when there is ventilation needs to be factored in, but this is never present in any of the Government literature.

The message has become monodimensional. How many times will the Taoiseach address the nation before it loses all currency? How long before the national broadcaster RTÉ slides into being the State broadcaster with a largely uncritical coverage of the received messages?

The only way is not necessarily the way of Nphet and/or the Government, and there needs to be more critical engagement.

If there are more measures required in the new year they need to be far more detailed, more case-specific, more tailored, with comprehensive guidelines and protocols for every walk of life.

For example, if you run a rural pub and if it is small and dingy with little ventilation, chances are you might not be allowed open.

But you could be allowed open if your pub is larger and has a strong throughput of air; you adhere to the all the distancing protocols, and kick people out at 10.30pm or if they are getting drunk; and you agree to be inspected on a regular basis.

I know there are a lot of ifs there, but that level of detail is needed.

Another week, another scandal

The weekend polls showing Sinn Féin’s support rising to nose-bleed altitudes came before Brian Stanley sent out a tweet about two notorious IRA ambushes in which many British forces died: Kilmichael in Co Cork a century ago; and Narrow Water in Co Down in August 1979.

The Narrow Water attack was ruthless and merciless and caused carnage, with 18 soldiers being killed and another 20 injured. Kilmichael was an atrocity of similar bloodiness and ruthlessness, but the passage of time has distanced us from its violence.

Stanley has apologised for the tweet, which was in very poor taste, but he and his party have stood firm on him resigning as chair of the powerful PAC. Meanwhile as Jennifer Bray reports, Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl has responded to the Northern First Minister's letter of protest against Stanley's tweet.

As Jennifer notes, the Ceann Comhairle has said the affair needs a “credible political response”. We will discover today if that will actually occur.

Best reads

Miriam Lord on how Alan Kelly injected a bit of light venom into the vaccine debate.

Simon Carswell has an important report on what an Oireachtas committee will hear today on the staffing pressures Irish ports will face arising from Brexit.

An excellent piece from Kathy Sheridan on the response of young Sinn Féin supporters to Stanley's tweet.

Playbook

Dáil

In the Dáil at the Convention Centre, Leaders' Questions is at noon. Before that Solidarity-People Before Profit is tabling a Bill seeking more pay for student nurses.

The Finance Bill 2020 and the Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill are scheduled for debate.

The weekly divisions (votes) take place at 9.30pm.

Seanad

In the Seanad, members will debate the Planning and Development Bill 2020, which allows extra time for planning submissions and appeals due to Covid.

Labour is bringing a Private Members’ Bill designed to partly reverse the 2004 referendum that removed automatic citizenship to children born in Ireland whose parents were not citizens.

Simon Coveney is in to brief a Seanad committee on Brexit at 6pm.

Committees

On a busy day for committees, we have already referred to a discussion on the crisis in hospitality sector, as well as the concerns expressed by ports over staffing once Brexit occurs.

At 9am, the social protection committee is also looking at rural hubs, and broadband and mobile coverage throughout Ireland.

Stephen Donnelly is in with the health committee at 4pm to discuss his department’s enormous supplementary estimates.