Last Friday, the Taoiseach looked the Irish people in the eye and warned them that if lockdown is not eased on May 5th it will be their own fault. He should look a little closer to home.
Leo Varadkar said we are becoming “lax” about the rules and such laxity is making it “harder to end this”, as he created a direct link between our supposed behaviour and the relaxing of restrictions. To some, it came across as almost a threat.
His ill-advised scolding of an increasingly exhausted public echoed a sudden deluge of similar warnings from other officials over the previous 24 hours. It sounded like a co-ordinated chorus of chastisement. Simon Harris, the Minister for Health, made similar noises, albeit with more tact. Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, waved charts of people’s movement gleaned from mobile phones and seismologists as proof of our “complacency”.
After stoically sucking up more than six weeks of tough restrictions, including four weeks of full lockdown and with plenty to go, the people were put on the naughty step.
The Taoiseach said the public’s behaviour could result in full lockdown being extended by “two or three weeks”, taking us into the third week of May. Funnily enough, that chimes exactly with how long the HSE says it will take for the State to ramp up Covid-19 testing to the level that we have been repeatedly told is necessary for an easing.
So which is really to blame? Flouting of restrictions, or the State’s repeated failure on testing? A cynic might say the Government is allowing the public to be the fall guy to distract from its own mistakes.
The goalposts have been shifted so many times on the 15,000 tests-per-day target, first promised by Harris on March 19th, that they no longer refer to it as 15,000 per day. Lately, they started calling it 100,000 per week, which is basically the same thing. Its thinly-disguised reframing should not distract from how woefully it has been missed.
When he first announced the target just after St Patrick’s Day, Harris said it was attainable in the “next few days” as he promised to follow the World Health Organisation’s mantra to “test, test, test” our way out. Two weeks later, with a massive shortage of lab materials, the State was barely testing 2,000 per day and it was taking two weeks to get results. The target for after lockdown is 24 to 48 hours.
On April 12th, virologist Cillian de Gascun, one of the top scientists shaping the State’s response, said the target would be met by the end of the following week. The operating model to reach 100,000 per week was, in reality, only agreed between the HSE and the Government over the weekend just gone. If nothing was even agreed prior to that, then what was the basis of the many broken promises that came before? The constantly moving goalposts suggest they didn’t fully understand why it was happening.
Several countries, not just Ireland, struggled to ramp up testing due to a global shortage of materials, such as reagent. But most of those countries don’t have what is, proportionally, the biggest biopharma industry in the world in their backyards. All ten of the biggest firms have factories here. A global shortage of testing materials in a global pandemic ought to have been foreseeable by the State’s experts in late February as the crisis exploded globally. At the very least, they ought to have been able to predict it when Harris made his original promise in March.
If so, we might have started homebrewing some of the materials on Irish soil several weeks ago if the Government had called upon some of the US-owned factories here earlier. It was into April before the local biopharma industry’s help was discussed. Harris’s target will be met at least two months late.
Our leaders have been stretched in this pandemic like few others in our history. They are working themselves to stubs and it is must be crushing. They are flesh and blood, not tungsten. But their performance on testing has, objectively, been poor.
The public’s broad adherence to the wartime-like restrictions, however, has been remarkable. Blaming the people for an extension of lockdown looks harsh. Just stay at home, we are told, as if the act is as simple as the trite slogan. In China, they might just weld you into your apartment if you struggled. In our free and liberal society, resolve must come from within.
Most people cannot go to work, and some will never go back. Our cocooning elderly have been deprived of the embrace of their grandchildren, who have been deprived of their schools. Our hearts have been deprived of the natural warmth and love of friends and family, while our heads have been filled with worry. Over time, these are not small things.
This lockdown will spur suffering and human misery, and, through poverty, eventually many deaths. It is understandable that some people have begun to move about a little bit more as we learn to negotiate it better. Evidence of more people moving also is not evidence that they are breaking the rules. Some movement is allowed. Maybe we are just less afraid now?
“Lockdown fatigue” is a known phenomenon, and was predicted back in March by British and Swedish experts, among others. Varadkar mentioned it himself in late March. Irish people aren’t lax for getting tired. We are normal. We need this to ease soon.
Ever since Varadkar warned of our behaviour, social media has filled with people complaining of their neighbours’ failings. How much of this is confirmation bias? If our leaders say we are slackers, then slacking is all we will see. I walk my working class neighbourhood each evening and, mostly, I see people social distancing as they scuttle to the park for exercise or the shops. Others might see something else, but who is perfect.
But walking those streets, you can still really sense the national effort. There are that many tricolours about, it could almost be Italia 90. When we get through this, as we surely will, together, we will have days like that again.
Mark Paul is an Irish Times journalist