May reopening: Expect a choppy week ahead of final announcement

There remains much division on how much loosening of restrictions is wise at this stage

Into the cauldron now returns Dr Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer and veteran of a hundred skirmishes with his political masters. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Into the cauldron now returns Dr Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer and veteran of a hundred skirmishes with his political masters. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

 

As the countdown to the next stage of the country’s reopening gets under way, we are familiar with the routine by now.

Decisions will be made by the Government next week about the May reopening. Prior to that there is fierce internal debate about the appropriate and safe extent of the liberalisation that should take place, beginning on May 4th, after the bank holiday weekend.

The full extent of the internal debates is not revealed to the public – both Government and the higher echelons of health officials and their advisers like to do things behind closed doors. But through leaks – both inadvertent and deliberate, designed to influence the final decisions or otherwise – and through visible public signals and by simply listening to what politicians and health officials say, it is possible to get a sense of where the decisions are going, and what the key points of dispute are. Everyone knows the drill at this stage: this isn’t anyone’s first rodeo.

According to people familiar with the discussions, the arguments are pretty intense right now. The familiar questions of how quickly, where and when to reopen are in full flight. Should outdoor hospitality recommence before June? Should non-essential retail – at least on a click-and-collect basis – restart in May? The pressure from the churches for religious services is building. And from other lobbies.

Core to the arguments for reopening is the belief that people are pretty much at the end of their tether with the lockdown. The Government’s own research shows that people are less personally worried about the virus than at any time since last July. The numbers of those who want more restrictions have plummeted, and of those who want fewer restrictions have soared, the Government data shows.

Vaccinated vulnerable

Previous Irish Times research indicated that when those at greatest risk had been vaccinated, public support for lockdown would slip away. We are not there yet. But we may be getting there soon.

It’s an oversimplification to say that the disputes are simply between public health officials and politicians, though it is certainly the case that some prominent public health voices are urging caution, and some prominent political voices want a quicker opening-up. The arguments are complex and multifaceted and don’t always arrange themselves on simple us-against-them lines. But it is true to say the pressure for as much reopening as is safely possible is coming from the political side.

The decisions to be taken in the next 10 days or so are not just about reopening. They are also about vaccination. Government Buildings has been frustrated not just by the stutters in the vaccine programme but by the lack of up-to-date information about vaccine deliveries, vaccination targets and progress of the programme.

Some people are also pulling their hair out about what they see as the overcautious approach of restricting the use of AstraZeneca. And public health chiefs are windy about stretching the gap between the two Pfizer doses. Now they must make decisions about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Cool to frosty

All of this is in the mix in the discussions between the politicians, the HSE and the public health experts over the coming week. Each has their own particular perspective. Nor is any of these groupings necessarily internally united.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin was reportedly furious with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly after he suggested that the 18-30s might be vaccinated before older cohorts (the latter swiftly withdrew the idea). Relations between Government Buildings and the department are cool to frosty.

Into this cauldron now returns Dr Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer and veteran of a hundred skirmishes with his political masters. It should be said that all involved are, by their own lights, striving for the best outcome for the public. But it’s going to be a choppy week or 10 days as a plan is hammered out.

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