New pace of reopening thought unlikely even up until a few weeks ago

Analysis: Changes to Covid-19 restrictions are as much Nphet-led as they are politician-led

Members of the Cabinet have expressed surprise at what they say is a step-change in approach from Nphet Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Members of the Cabinet have expressed surprise at what they say is a step-change in approach from Nphet Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

The substantial reopening of Irish society over the summer months could easily be portrayed, politically, as the Government regaining its self-confidence and wrestling back control of the agenda from the uber-cautious National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) mandarins.

That narrative would begin with the horrors that unfolded in late December and January when case numbers, ICU admissions and deaths escalated alarmingly. Since then – and this comes as a surprise to nobody – the Government has cleaved very closely to public health advice.

But now, reopening is happening at a scale and a pace that would have been considered unlikely even up until a few weeks ago. It’s not that things are quite returning to the status quo ante. Still by mid-July there will be outdoor gigs, spectators at sporting events, indoor dining and drinking, and even the return of international travel.

Image: Paul Scott/The Irish Times
Image: Paul Scott/The Irish Times

However, this change is as much Nphet-led as it is politician-led.

“On this occasion and the last Nphet have surprised on the upside,” said a senior Minister, who did not wish to be named.

“The views of Nphet and us Ministers have not diverged. We have obviously put a bit of flesh on the bones, with the pilot events for example, but there have been no exceptions.”

Members of the Cabinet have expressed surprise at what they say is a step-change in approach from Nphet. They had expected headwinds, in particular, to the plans to reopen indoor dining and drinking in pubs and restaurants in early July.

“It’s not without risk,” said the Minister. “There’s a degree of nervousness about all of that, especially the impact (consumption of alcohol) indoors will have on case numbers.

“Nphet had no objection to the reopening yet remained much more conservative in their approach to outdoor events and activities. We were all a little puzzled by that.”

Will there be a bonus from the vaccination programme and from the summer reopening for the Government parties? There were divided views

Most of the change of approach can be ascribed to the success of the vaccine programme so far. Cabinet ministers say they are conscious that the slowdown in the programme (due to shortfalls in promised supplies of Janssen and AstraZeneca vaccines) in addition to the arrival of the highly transmissible Indian variant will have an upward impact on numbers.

However, another Cabinet Minister said there was confidence that the decoupling between case numbers on the one hand, and serious illness and death, would continue. “The new cases will be unvaccinated people, in other words the young,” said the Minister. “They tend not to get very ill.”

The decision on international travel was dealt with as a separate strand, and, unusually, did not involve Nphet, although it is certain that Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan delivered advice to Ministers.

Will there be a bonus from the vaccination programme and from the summer reopening for the Government parties? There were divided views. At the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting this week, Taoiseach Micheál Martin made a virtue of it. It has certainly provided a boon to the Tory Government in the UK.

Among Cabinet members there were mixed views? “It will help in the sense that it will steady the ship,” said one Minister. “I’m not sure that there will be a bounce in popularity in the medium term. Eaten bread is soon forgotten. The Opposition can flip from being zero-Covid to demanding the immediate reopening of society and will then start zeroing in on the housing crisis.

“The most it will do is steady the ship and steady the nerves. That’s better than nothing.”

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