The Irish Times view on Covid-19 restrictions: Difficult weeks ahead

Government owes it to people to be open about its deliberations

Given the clear upward trend in the infection rate and the tone of public comments from Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on Friday, it would appear that an early tightening of restrictions is now inevitable. Photograph: Leah Farrell / RollingNews.ie

Given the clear upward trend in the infection rate and the tone of public comments from Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on Friday, it would appear that an early tightening of restrictions is now inevitable. Photograph: Leah Farrell / RollingNews.ie

 

No sooner had restrictions on movement and social activity been eased for the Christmas period than public health officials were warning of dire consequences unless those freedoms are quickly curtailed. The recommendation from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) that restrictions should be reintroduced as early as December 28th will come as a heavy blow in particular for the many hoteliers, restaurant owners and publicans who were counting on a busy trade over the New Year period to partially offset earlier losses – not to mention the many families and individuals who may have to revise their plans for the holiday if, as expected, the Government acts on the Nphet recommendation.

Reasonable questions will now arise as to the wisdom of delaying that decision until Tuesday. The extra few days will give public health officials more data on the trends, and Nphet no doubt hopes that its bleak situation report on Thursday will itself produce a shift in behaviour. But given the clear upward trajectory in the infection rate and the tone of public comments from Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on Friday, it would appear that an early tightening of the rules is now inevitable.

The larger question behind these dilemmas is a familiar one: how many deaths is the country willing to accept in order to keep the economy running?

The hospitality sector understandably complains of being singled out, though its representatives overstate the case by saying that no cases have been linked to restaurants in recent weeks. The contact tracing system does not engage in systematic retrospective analysis of sites of transmission, so we do not know where people are catching the disease. But it stands to reason that transmission is occurring to some degree in enclosed spaces where people congregate, and that includes pubs and restaurants. The Government has rightly said keeping schools and childcare centres open is its priority. That leaves few other options if it wishes to reduce social contacts.

The larger question behind these dilemmas is a familiar one: how many deaths is the country willing to accept in order to keep the economy running? It should come as no surprise that both Nphet and Government are minded to act early to keep the infection rate under control before it spirals to levels seen elsewhere in Europe. In this its case has been strengthened by the terrible scenes north of the Border, where ambulances are lining up outside over-stretched hospitals and where partisan political bickering has compromised the fight against the virus.

With the first vaccines set to be distributed in the Republic in the coming weeks, the end of the emergency is on the horizon. The coming round of restrictions could be the last. That will help steel the public for the difficult weeks ahead. But Government owes it to people to be open about its deliberations, and not to put off decisions to which most people are already resigned.

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