Pat Leahy: Jumpy few weeks loom as public more wary of Covid

While pandemic landscape can change abruptly, Ministers nervous but not terrified

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar TD: The easiest thing is to shut down the entire country. The next easiest thing is to reopen it completely. Everything in between is going to be messy.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar TD: The easiest thing is to shut down the entire country. The next easiest thing is to reopen it completely. Everything in between is going to be messy.

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So Friday’s reopening is going ahead, albeit with some restrictions remaining in place, at least until the new year.

It’s not Freedom Day, though the Government demonstrated enough good sense not to label it in those terms. Maybe they could call it the “freedom to achieve freedom”?

Many hospitality businesses will impatiently await the promised guidance from Government. It’s promised in the coming days, but they’d want to get a move on, with nightclubs due to open on Friday. There was little or no clarity on the issue from the leaders of the Government at Tuesday’s press conference, but they confessed that “anomalies” would abound.

It appears that you will be able to saunter around a nightclub (with a mask on) perhaps approaching the bar, maybe on your way to or from the dancefloor; while a different set of rules will confine you to your table if you are at a late bar. You’ll be able to get away without social distancing in a nightclub – in the (hopefully) immortal words of Micheál Martin, “What traditionally happens in a nightclub will continue to happen in a nightclub” – but you will have to maintain social distance in the workplace, to which you will continue to return, but perhaps more slowly. Confused yet?

Anomalies and contradictions

It is, you feel, some time since the Taoiseach strutted his stuff in a nightclub; not so perhaps Leo Varadkar who gave the best explanation for the anomalies and contradictions that will undoubtedly proliferate in the coming weeks.

The easiest thing is to shut down the entire country, Varadkar said. The next easiest thing is to reopen it completely. Everything in between is going to be messy.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) appears to have been given a reprieve. A few weeks ago, it was slated to be disbanded, as the Covid emergency receded. Now it will continue to offer advice.

Nphet didn’t call for the reopening to be postponed, and it probably knew that wasn’t going to happen. But it has issued warnings that cases will continue to climb in the coming weeks. Hospitalisations will rise to a peak of about 800-1,000 in mid-November, Nphet told the Government, with ICU numbers peaking at 100-150 between the end of November and mid-December. Mind you, previous projections have been wildly out.

Anticipated deterioration

As has previously been the case, public opinion has anticipated the deterioration in the Covid situation.

Research published by the Department of Health shows the public has suddenly become a lot more wary about the virus, with the numbers of those who think the reopening is going too fast, those who favour more restrictions and who think the worst is ahead of us all growing substantially in the last fortnight.

Now, these are all minority positions; the public is still in favour of reopening. But they are bigger minorities than they were a few weeks ago. If the first rule of Covid is that the landscape can change abruptly and quickly, the public has demonstrated an acute nose for when a benign situation is inflecting. Covid moves with the suddenness of an earthquake.

Ultimately, the political judgment is that the health service can ride it out and can withstand a few weeks of worsening cases. This is based on not just the assessments of Nphet, and on the difference the vaccine has made, but on the judgments of the people who run the health service.

There is nervousness in Government, but not terror, as there was previously. The fundamental truth is that Ministers believe the country is no longer in danger of being overwhelmed by Covid. It will be a jumpy few weeks all the same.

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