The Government finds itself in one of the most difficult moments in the pandemic. There were times when case counts, hospital admissions and deaths were higher, but in previous surges the policy responses suggested themselves.
In January, for example, it was clear that without a strict and prolonged lockdown cases would continue to rise vertiginously, and so would hospitalisations and deaths. Before long the hospital system would collapse. When basic public health measures such as distancing and mask-wearing failed to keep infections under control, in other words, lockdowns were the only weapon left in the State’s armoury.
This time the picture is more complex. With more than 600 people in hospital, of whom 106 are in intensive care, the health system is under severe pressure. Daily confirmed cases are at a seven-day average of just under 4,000; the real figure is likely to be higher. The big difference now is that 93 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and a booster programme is under way to mitigate the waning effects of the jabs. That’s what has enabled the country to remain open at quasi-normal levels without suffering a surge many times larger.
Ideally a booster programme would consist of new shots designed specially to resist the Delta variant, but even in the absence of an updated product we know – and the declining number of cases in nursing homes shows – that the rollout will reduce illness levels. The question for Government and its health advisers is whether that new protective shield will suffice, along with the higher levels of adherence to guidance on behaviour, to bring forward the infection peak and ensure hospitals are not overrun.
That means a great deal hinges on new modelling due this week from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet). The political appetite for a lockdown is at zero. Public enthusiasm for the idea is unlikely to be much higher. But before it comes to that, and without waiting for that modelling, there are steps that could be taken quickly to fight the current wave.
Nphet’s welcome change of mind on antigen testing should be followed by much wider use of these tests at heavily subsidised prices; current high prices are a disincentive for their use. The vaccination cert requirement could be extended beyond indoor dining and drinking. People should be encouraged to work at home where possible. That in turn would facilitate a reduction in capacity on public transport – a step that ought to be taken without delay.
Some of these steps will come at a cost, but it is nothing compared to the social and economic cost of a more sweeping lockdown. The moment demands quick, targeted reactions in response to a threat that changes every week.