Micheál Martin takes a calculated gamble on reopening Ireland

Biggest shift in Covid regulations since the lockdown was reimposed at Christmas

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said “hope is returning” as he outlined the Government’s plan to significantly ease Covid-19 restrictions from May 10th. Video: RTÉ

 

Hardly one of life’s natural gamblers, Micheál Martin has nonetheless taken a calculated risk with a bold strategy to reopen the social and economic life of the country at a pace considerably quicker than had been widely expected.

The reopening details started with a trickle on Thursday night that quickly became a flood: May 10th is the first big date, with hairdressers opening, people permitted to meet in their gardens, and religious services restarting. The reopening will gather pace in May and continue into June when outdoor hospitality returns. By July, restrictions on mass gatherings, indoor pubs and restaurants and other high risk situations will remain; but nearly everything else will be gone.

It is the biggest shift in Covid regulations since the lockdown was reimposed at Christmas, and the broadest reopening since last year. Suddenly, the summer is back on: that whoosh you heard is the sound of a million holidays being booked.

But some ministers, TDs and officials are keenly aware that the consequences of getting this wrong could be Government-destroying. They were taken as much by surprise as the public: anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, says one minister.

Some of them are terrified that the Coalition is in danger of a repeat of the dreadful events of December-January when an explosion of social contacts which followed the lifting of the October-November lockdown led to a lethal surge in cases, and the subsequent almost five-month lockdown.

So what is behind the dramatic move - and what happens if it goes wrong?

Vaccinations

The move is driven by two conclusions reached by politicians and senior officials in the last few weeks: that a large chunk of the country has reached the end of the line with the lockdown, and that vaccination - both already administered and scheduled for the next few weeks - changes the picture sufficiently to make a wide re-opening possible.

The politicians defer to the health expertise of the specialists, but they consider themselves the experts on the public and what they will put up with. They have also repeatedly cited public opinion research for their contention that once the medically vulnerable and those at risk of death were vaccinated, that public observation of the lockdown would quickly fray. Their observations in recent weeks have provided them with evidence for this analysis.

In recent weeks, the Government has also made it clear that it could accept an argument from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) that the situation remained sufficiently grave that extensive restrictions were needed; or it could accept the view of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) that the situation was not sufficiently grave to set aside the “abundance of caution” approach that restricted the use of some vaccines. But it could not accept both simultaneously.

“If we’re still on a knife edge, then we need to use all the vaccines,” summarises one person involved.

People involved in the process confirm that there have been intensive contacts between the Department of the Taoiseach and public health officials in recent weeks, clearing lines of communication that have sometimes been fuzzy and confused.

Schools

The public health officials were keen that the impact of the recent school reopenings were assessed before any decisions made. That has seen a slight uptick in infections; but not a disastrous one.

As the threat reduces, the vaccines remain the key. And the phased reopening buys the programme some time. While people may be excited at the news of the reopening, many of the measures won’t take effect for a few weeks yet, and more still in June. In two weeks time, the Government expects another half a million people to be vaccinated; by June, a million-plus more. Those numbers dramatically change the risk profile of any reopening.

There are, of course, no certainties with Covid, which has a habit of confounding optimism and changing the game rapidly with new variants. Periods of satisfaction have previously been followed by fear and disappointment. Some sources, including Cabinet members, look at India and wonder if the dash for freedom is wise.

A sudden arrest or reversal of the reopening would surely cause a savage political backlash. It is hard to see how the Government’s credibility and authority could survive a repeat of the new year surge in cases, hospitalisations and fatalities.

But both the Government and its public health advisers believe that the risk of such an event is hugely diminished by the vaccination programme. The astonishing efficacy of the vaccines - all of them - is the game-changer.

“The overwhelming evidence is that this is a new phase once you get people vaccinated,” says one person involved in the discussions which led to last night’s announcements. “So in that sense, it’s not really a gamble at all.” They hope.