State faces significant challenges as NPHET recommends Level 5 lockdown

How economy, society and political system will now confront the pandemic is not clear

 Chief medical offier Dr Tony Holohan arriving at the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee sitting at Leinster House, Dublin in May. Photograph:  Dara Mac Donaill

Chief medical offier Dr Tony Holohan arriving at the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee sitting at Leinster House, Dublin in May. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

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The bombshell news that the National Public Health Emergency Team has recommended a return to full, Level 5 lockdown, presents fundamental challenges for how Ireland’s economy, society and political system will now confront the pandemic.

It is probably the biggest moment in the Irish pandemic experience since then-taoiseach Leo Varadkar outlined the first stage of lockdown on the steps of the naval observatory in Washington, DC, in March.

Then, the State was faced with a novel, terrifying threat. Acceptance of the measures announced, and those that followed, was guaranteed, as the country moved to suppress the spread of coronavirus – to flatten the curve.

That mission was accomplished; but for weeks now, it has been clear that this battle against the virus will not progress in a linear fashion. It is not a battle that is fought, and then won, and consigned to history. It must be refought – but the rules of engagement have changed.

For a start, the economic impact of lockdown measures is undeniable. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost, and the State has taken an unprecedented role in people’s lives, pumping billions of borrowed euros into the economy in order to mitigate the impact of the virus.

Societal trauma

The societal trauma of lockdown, and of the loss of life associated with the virus, has frayed the social fabric of the State. There is growing resistance to the reintroduction of restrictions, both from the political fringes, and from the mainstream. Many are struggling to grasp how cases, deaths, hospitalisations and intensive care occupancy would justify a return to full lockdown.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are elements who wilfully disregard public health advice; the pandemic has accelerated the process of some voters and citizens being flung far from the political centre, and losing faith in the capacity or interest of the political system to act for them.

The Government’s occasionally shambolic handling of many challenges has undermined public confidence. The power of NPHET has proved unsettling to many, with questions now being asked of a model that sees the political pace set by an essentially technocratic group.

Watershed moment

Sunday night’s news broke into this increasingly fractured vista. It may lead to a split between Government and its advisers – it will inevitably lead to wider questioning of policy steps taken, and those still to come. It is undoubtedly a watershed moment.

Against all this, health officials will counter that one thing has remained constant: while the threat seems less novel, the virus is just as menacing.

Its impact on the human body is visible and measurable in a way which contrasts sharply with how its management impacts on human societies. The economic and social measures fall unevenly among the population, with younger people, and poorer people feeling them the most. Meanwhile, older people face the greatest risk of death and serious illness. The virus is as much a public policy and social crisis as it is a medical one, and balancing that dynamic falls on the shoulders of a uniquely challenged Government.

The State is at a crossroads – but the route, if there is one, out of its current difficulties is not clear.

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