The Irish Times view on Covid 19 clusters in the midlands: It’s not too late to reassert control

We still have an opportunity to stop the disease in its tracks; to fail to do so when we know what is required would be unconscionable

 

The emergence of new Covid-19 clusters was to be expected, but the size and rapid spread of the outbreaks at four meat plants in the midlands make this a critical moment in the island’s effort to retain control over the virus. Community transmission in Laois, Kildare and Offaly has been low to date, but we should expect it to increase as a result of the latest clusters. The question is whether the State, via its test-and-trace systems, and the public, through adherence to public health advice on individual behaviour, can together act in a way that isolates the disease and stops it from spreading.

There is a great deal riding on the question. International evidence, as well as our own experience this Spring, tells us that a failure to contain the midlands outbreaks will lead to a sharp, rapid rise in incidence across the island. At a minimum, that would result in a further postponement of phase four of the reopening process, and perhaps to more local lockdowns in the worst-affected areas. It could complicate efforts to reopen schools, which the Government has rightly declared as its priority, and could even result in a reimposition of restrictions just as people were beginning to feel that some semblance of normal life could continue even as we learn to live with the virus. The economic and social costs of a return to large-scale closures would be catastrophic.

The Government has legitimate questions to answer on the outbreaks at meat plants. The dangers of such settings as sites of transmission were flagged well in advance. It’s clear that even where owners dutifully followed public health advice, those safety measures were insufficient and did not adequately account for the fact that the low-paid migrant workers whom the country relies on to fill so many precarious jobs in the food sector often live in cramped communal housing where the risks of transmission are greater. If such plants are to remain open, it’s clear that new measures will need to be adopted, including large-scale and systematic testing.

It’s not too late to reassert control over the virus. The island’s overall case numbers remain relatively low by European standards. Notwithstanding public fatigue, people for the most part continue to follow public health guidance. If the midlands clusters can be contained, there is every reason to hope that schools can reopen fully, with the latest report from the European Centre for Disease Control, which found that child-to-child transmission of the disease in schools is uncommon, providing some degree of reassurance to teachers and parents.

We know a lot more about Covid-19 now than we did in March. We now how it kills and how it spreads, but we also know how to arrest its advance. We still have an opportunity to stop the disease in its tracks; to fail to do so when we know what is required would be unconscionable.

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