The Cabinet meets on Tuesday for the first time after the August break, and will be faced with a nervy set of decisions about the next – and possibly final – phase of lifting Covid-19 restrictions.
The plan due to be unveiled later comes against a background of high case numbers and increasing hospitalisations, not just in Ireland but everywhere, which warrants caution.
But there is also confidence that the vaccination programme has all but eliminated the potential for Covid-19 to bring the health system to a standstill, which feeds impatience.
So, hardly quite believing that the end of the pandemic may be in sight, the Government will push ahead with reopening. As before, it is likely it will be a little more brisk than expected. But by comparison with lots of places – our nearest neighbours most notably – it’s still a slow and cautious approach.
The reasons aren’t hard to guess.
The scars from last December/January’s surge of infections after the pre-Christmas reopening run deep. For a period in January, and even into February, Ministers and senior officials were holding their breath as they waited to see if the hospital system would be overwhelmed by Covid-19.
It didn’t happen – and, in truth, it didn’t nearly happen. But sources across Government vividly remember fearing that it might. That would have been not just a Government-destroying event, it would have been a national calamity.
Since then, caution has marked the Government’s reopening strategy, which has happened at a much slower pace than in many other countries. The model chosen by decision-makers – to reopen gradually, with clearly defined deadlines being announced weeks in advance – is viewed within Government has having been extremely effective at securing public buy-in.
There is also a view that lobby groups – no matter how vociferous or well-connected – should be told their considerations are very much subservient to the wider public good, as identified by Ministers and officials.
“I don’t hear any clamour from my constituents for reopening,” says one TD.
What the live music industry – despite the regular advocacy on its behalf by Minister for Arts Catherine Martin – has learned in recent weeks, as publicans did at the start of the summer, is that a lobbying campaign will get you heard, but it will not guarantee a decision in your favour.
The bottom line is that Ministers fear making a wrong decision on reopening more than they fear the lobbying groups, no matter how well organised and vocal they are, and no matter how often they hear them on the radio.
The weekly research by the Department of Health, conducted by Amárach, offers Ministers comfort that, by and large, the public endorses a cautious approach. The most recent results show that 59 per cent of people believe the Government’s approach is “appropriate”, 22 per cent say it’s insufficient and 19 per cent say it’s too extreme.
It is true that perceptions of risk amongst the public, and therefore caution about reopening, have increased this month as cases mounted, and that trend may continue. If so, it is only likely to heighten the caution with which Ministers approach what they hope is the final plan.
Maintaining this public backing – or, at least, not screwing it up – is a political imperative for the Coalition as it faces into a resumption of more normal politics this autumn.
There is a budget to do in the coming weeks. The plan to deal with the most pressing domestic policy issue – housing – is due to be published later this week. Economic support measures put in place during the pandemic are being wound down. A waiting list crisis looms in the health service.
The last thing the Government needs is a Covid-19 disaster, an unsustainable surge in hospitalisations that would force it to reintroduce restrictions. So it will seek to minimise any risk of that happening.
The cautious steps forward will continue.