Irish Times view on latest Covid-19 wave: Buying time for the booster effect

Government cannot know if more stringent restrictions will be needed in coming weeks

The situation will get worse before it gets better, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said as he entered a Cabinet meeting that would approve new measures aimed at reducing the latest surge of Covid-19 infections. The only question is how much worse it will get.

New modelling from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) underlines just how precarious a situation the country is in. The most optimistic scenario sees 200-220 Covid patients in intensive care units at the peak of the current wave – around the same as in January, when a lockdown was imposed.

But the modellers’ uncertainty is equally striking; in the most pessimistic scenario, there would be twice as many people in ICU – a figure so large, and so certain to bring the health system to the point of collapse, that a fresh lockdown to avert it would be unavoidable.

With the Health Service Executive warning that hospitals are under severe strain, the Government could not afford to wait for the trajectory of the current crisis to clarify. Its policy response contains two prongs. The first, enabled by a green light from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac), is to widen and speed up the vaccine booster campaign.


It will now include all those aged over 50 and everyone over 16 who has an underlying medical condition or resides in a long-term care facility. The Government hopes that, as occurred in Israel, a third vaccine shot will do the heavy lifting in the push to bring infections down. But a large-scale effect from that rollout will take weeks at least to become apparent, so other measures are required in the meantime.

So the second prong of the Government’s response is a set of mitigation measures. The most eye-catching will arguably be the least effective: a midnight curfew for pubs, restaurants and nightclubs. At best its effect will be marginal.

And inevitably it will produce yet more debate about apparent policy contradictions from a Government that is content for 50,000 people to cram into a stadium and go drinking before and after.

Far more effective will be measures such as the return to working from home, which should allow for lower capacity on public transport, and a new rule requiring close contacts of a household case to restrict their movements for five days.

The waning vaccine effect made the latter step a necessity, and Nphet’s belated conversion to the merits of antigen testing made it possible. The next step is to subsidise antigen tests so that more people will use them regularly.

The Government cannot know whether far more stringent restrictions will be required over the coming weeks.

But with a rapid and efficient booster rollout, strict enforcement of Covid cert rules, quick progress on antigen testing and clear public communications, it still has the ability to shape events and ensure the worst scenarios do not come to pass.