Cliff Taylor: Finding an Irish solution to our Covid-19 problem

Ireland should be in a position to meet – or beat– the new vaccination targets

People enjoying the fresh air at Portobello Harbour in the Grand Canal in Dublin last Monday.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

People enjoying the fresh air at Portobello Harbour in the Grand Canal in Dublin last Monday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

We are trying to find an Irish solution to our Irish Covid problem. But comparisons with what is happening elsewhere will inevitably be a big part of politics here in the months ahead. The Government will be met at every turn with whatboutery in relation to other countries – not least the UK. It needs to hold its nerve.

It would not be clever for us to take the Boris approach and set dates right now for when things would happen as the UK are doing. Perhaps more clarity might be possible when the next review comes in April. And we can torture ourselves by looking at the progress Denmark or Malta are making on vaccine rollout , or reassure ourselves that we are “ahead” of some other big EU counties, but we just need to get on and get it done here, under the circumstances we face.

Like most of the EU, we are putting our money on vaccines getting rolled out quickly and working well enough to make a big difference in allowing our society and economy to slowly restart. And there is no reason – once the supply arrives – that Ireland, as a small country, can’t get this done.

The Government has set targets this week for the first time.Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said that it aims to see 82 per cent of the population vaccinated at least once by the end of June and 55 to 60 per cent vaccinated twice.

We might even do a bit better. Taking an optimistic view of supply and delivery, we could have everyone vaccinated once by the end of June and have over half the population done twice. If that was achieved, we would be in a completely different place coming into the summer. And we might get the entire programme more or less finished by August for the adult population, ahead of the mid-September target. We know vaccines may not solve everything, but in all the gloom perhaps we have lost sight of what they can achieve.

Decisions

This could leave the Government with a sequence of decisions – assuming the virus situation is going reasonably well. And it is worth holding on for a few more weeks now to get the numbers down, even if some restrictions – like the 5k limit – do not seem targeted at areas which could cause problems.

The first big moment will come in late April/early May, by which time the vaccination of older people and those with medical exposures should be drawing to a close. This will be about opening up the rest of the retail sector, perhaps outdoor dining and whether to lay out a timetable for later in the summer.

Assuming things stay on track, the second key point would probably come in June,when most will have had at least one jab. The big question then would be whether to open hotels and hospitality for the summer and let people travel across the country.

More key calls would then lie ahead heading into the autumn, by which time we hope the vaccine programme is running down. Boris Johnson’s indications that the UK will be throwing away masks and the need for social distancing by the summer when its programme is done seem very optimistic. So, right now, does hope of foreign holiday travel this year, given the risk of variants. But honestly, who knows?

At every turn we will face the inevitable comparisons with other countries. Perhaps the the British will be booking their Greek holidays and buying tickets for the European football championships, or the Danes will be sitting in bars swilling Carlsberg. Everything will be used to hit the Government from every angle, though it is notable from the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll how divergent the views are on what should happen. People are simultaneously nervous and impatient.

Uncertainty

The biggest challenge the Government faces in communications terms is uncertainty. People want clarity. Enough to be able to even book a staycation. Businesses are wondering when they can reopen. Some 470,000 people on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) want to know when they might be able to return to work. There seems no way around this for now, though it puts a premium on clarity in communicating policy and the uncertainties.

The lockdown here has been tougher than in other EU countries, according to a study by Oxford University. Here again we are in something of a unique position. If the lockdown was tougher, then how come the economy grew last year, when measured by the traditional GDP measure, putting us out of step with declines elsewhere? This is partly the result of multinational accounting. But not entirely. The strong multinational sector has supported jobs, incomes and tax.

However, the collapse in the domestic consumer-facing sectors has been every bit as bad as elsewhere in the EU, and worse than in many other countries, due to the lengthy closures. Many companies are now squeezed for cash and hanging on. And the longer-term uncertainties over travel raise real questions for our open economy.

So we have some economic positives coming out of the pandemic in sectors which have operated right through and massive savings in people’s bank accounts, some of which will be spent. But we also face a reckoning in the domestic economy as supports are withdrawn.

This two-speed economy means the economic answers here will also be unique. The healthier parts of the economy can provide resources – incomes, taxes and savings – which can help the battered sectors to revive. Lingering uncertainties over travel and large gatherings remain a worry, though. And a huge divide will open up between those economically hit by the pandemic and those who have boosted their savings accounts. This will surely be a big factor in our politics, though in this regard Ireland is in the same boat as many other countries.

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