The Irish Times view on Covid-19 restrictions: buying time for the vaccine effect

The lesson of December – that premature reopening can come at a huge long-term cost – is still fresh

The changes announced by Taoiseach Micheál Martin amount to a conservative approach to easing rules and guidelines in the short term but also hold out the prospect of further relaxation in stages over the next two months. Photograph:  Julien Behal Photography/ PA Wire

The changes announced by Taoiseach Micheál Martin amount to a conservative approach to easing rules and guidelines in the short term but also hold out the prospect of further relaxation in stages over the next two months. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography/ PA Wire

 

All the indicators on public attitudes to the current restrictions, from data on travel and close contacts to opinion poll results, suggest a perfectly understandable paradox. People continue to see the need for stringent measures to keep Covid-19 from spreading in the community, but after three months of lockdown increasing numbers of people are struggling with the pressure and the stress that their tightly circumscribed daily lives impose.

That impression informs the latest adjustments to those restrictions, announced yesterday by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, which take a conservative approach to easing rules and guidelines in the short term but also hold out the prospect of further relaxation in stages over the next two months.

The coming changes prioritise allowing people greater freedom outdoors – for example, by easing the 5km exercise limit and allowing some children’s sports to resume – without creating new opportunities for mixing indoors, where the virus can spread more easily. By insisting that nothing should happen immediately – the first changes will take effect from April 12th – the Government is attempting to bank the gains that the Easter school holiday may present over the next 10 days while sending a broader message that the situation remains fragile.

That message was reinforced by the news that public health officials estimate the disease reproduction number is now at or above 1, meaning the epidemic is growing again.

It’s telling that, unlike in December, when industry lobby groups were loudly urging Government to lift restrictions that affected them, such calls have been more muted this time around. The Government’s pledge to maintain unemployment and wage supports has played a part. And the lesson of December – that premature reopening can come at a huge long-term cost – is still fresh. The entirely rational calculation of most business owners is that by keeping the doors closed for another few weeks, the next reopening will be for good.

That is a realistic scenario thanks to the national vaccination programme, which is picking up pace and is set to scale up dramatically in the coming weeks, assuming drug-makers keep their delivery pledges and there are no further suspensions of vaccine use. With estimated supply of one million doses in each of the next three months, the State is still on track to meet its target of giving at least one dose to 80 per cent of adults by the end of June.

That would radically alter the situation by the summer. But with supply pressures easing and all the chips in effect being placed on vaccination to get the country out of the crisis, all the pressure will now be on Government to get shots into arms as quickly as possible.

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