Significantly enhanced testing and tracing capacity will be required if the Covid-19 restrictions, which have shutdown most of the commercial and social life of the country, are to be lifted next month, according to people familiar with discussion on the subject in Government.
Insiders say pressure to ease the restrictions is increasing. As the costs mount, there is a growing sense across Government that the economy cannot be left in cold storage indefinitely, and also an awareness that the public’s co-operation with the lockdown has a shelf life that won’t go on forever.
The first phase of the battle against coronavirus was a race against time to delay the spread of the virus so the health service could prepare to deal with it.
The next phase is also a race against time – to get to a position where the restrictions can be eased before public patience runs out or economic necessity asserts itself.
The restrictions announced by the Taoiseach in March are due on Friday to be extended beyond the original end date of this Sunday, with Minister for Health Simon Harris expected to extend the new Garda powers to enforce the lockdown with a new order.
However, there is a growing hope in Government that if the current trajectory of the virus’s spread is maintained, a partial easing of the restrictions will be possible next month, perhaps after the bank holiday weekend.
New Garda powers
There is significant concern in Government that people may become complacent about the need to stay at home and observe social distancing, a fear that fuelled the adoption of new powers for gardaí on Tuesday night, and the subsequent high profile operations, which are continuing this weekend.
However, Ministers and other senior figures privately say that they hope to be in a position to – at least partially – relax the restrictions within weeks, and officials are paying close attention to the moves by several other EU countries in recent days to relax their restrictions.
All sources stress, however, that such a move depends on the progress of the virus over the coming weeks. Only if the health authorities judge that the virus has peaked would such a move be considered.
One source says that even then a move towards relaxing the restrictions would be along the lines of “if this, then that” – meaning that if there was a downward trajectory of hospital admissions and deaths, then unwinding could take place.
Key to any decision to relax the restrictions will be an enhanced ability to test for cases of the virus and quickly trace the contacts of any identified cases.
“You would need to have same-day or next-day results from tests,” said one senior source. “Then you would need to be able to trace the contacts of any new cases very quickly.”
“It has to be working like a machine,” said another senior official. Currently, nobody pretends that it is.
Senior figures acknowledge that the State’s testing and tracing capability is nowhere near this level at present, but say they expect that to be achieved by the end of the month “or soon afterwards”.
Several sources, however, appear less confident on this point. Efforts to secure the necessary materials, and to increase the testing and tracing capacity, will intensify over the coming weeks. Certainly, no relaxation of the lockdown will be possible without it.
Costs of the lockdown
Yet the conversation within Government is increasingly taking account of the ongoing costs of the lockdown. The Government cannot continue to finance all of society on an indefinite basis; if the economy falls into a lengthy depression people will die from that too, officials say.
Any relaxation of the lockdown will be phased. Sources believe that construction and non-essential manufacturing, both closed in the final round of restrictions, are likely to be the first to be allowed to reopen.
The restarting of house and commercial building is seen as particularly important, with Ibec data showing that the construction sector accounts for more than 9 per cent of private sector employment.
Much of the manufacturing sector was judged as essential and remains open, but non-essential manufacturing would be likely to reopen early. Any sectors reopening would be expected to be able to guarantee appropriate social distancing for employees.
The Government might also consider the early reopening of non-essential retail outlets – everything from clothes shops to garden centres – and some offices, although working from home will be encouraged where possible.
It is not clear how soon locations in which people gather – such as restaurants and pubs – might be allowed to reopen, but these are likely to be in a later phase.
As is happening in other countries which are considering reopening, large public gatherings are likely to be banned for some time, and this may be contingent on how early measures go.
Denmark, Austria and the Czech Republic area planning to gradually reopen, but all have indicated that large public gatherings will not happen until well into the summer at the earliest.
Whether to reopen schools will also be controversial. Denmark has indicated that it will do so after Easter, but Austria will keep its schools closed until September.
According to people involved in the discussions, public health officials “get” the economic argument, and will take it into account in their recommendations. Public health officials also understand the need to maintain the public’s buy-in to the coronavirus restrictions.
The Department of Health conducts an ongoing market research project into public attitudes to the restrictions, which sources say demonstrates public support is holding up strongly – “people are afraid and they will do whatever is necessary”.
However, another official adds that the research shows that “those who are obeying the rules want everyone to obey the rules” – a concern which contributed to this week’s enhanced policing of the lockdown.
Ministers are also keenly aware that the public needs to be shown that there is an exit strategy from the crisis. They agonise that talking about an exit strategy might lead people to believe that the virus is beaten – which it most assuredly is not – and that they can relax their own behaviour. That would be a disaster, they fear, delaying any lifting of the restrictions.