Covid-19 is still running rampant across Ireland. Up to 20,000 positive tests are confirmed every day, and pressures on the testing system mean the true scale of daily infections is likely much higher than those number suggest. If this were the pre-vaccination stage of the pandemic, the country would be in strict lockdown, the health system would be close to collapse and the death toll would be higher than at any point in the crisis.
Thanks to the success of the vaccination campaign and the apparently milder effects of the dominant Omicron variant, however, the link between cases and severity of illness has largely been severed. The number of patients in intensive care has remained largely stable for more than a month. Almost 1,000 people with Covid are in hospital – a number that continues to put pressure on hospitals and to compromise their ability to provide non-Covid care – but the Health Service Executive says up to 40 per cent of those patients were admitted for reasons other than the virus. There are indications, moreover, that the peak of the current wave may have been reached.
All of this has raised expectations of an imminent easing of restrictions. When the Government’s public health advisers meet on Thursday, they are expected to recommend the rolling back of some emergency measures introduced late last year as Omicron took hold. The 8pm closing time for hospitality and the crowd caps for indoor and outdoor events are among the restrictions that may be relaxed. Naturally not everyone will be comfortable with this, given that Covid continues to circulate widely, but it is clear that the justification for current restrictions is rapidly weakening. To maintain them at a time when severe illness is at current, relatively low levels and the peak in infections appears to have passed could undermine public confidence in future public health decisions. And if the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) conclude that it is now safe, for example, to remove the early closing time in hospitality, then that should be done without delay.
At the same time, it is important that Government, while explaining the rationale for any easing, does not give people false hope. The pandemic is not over. The danger has not passed. More virulent or vaccine-evading strains of the virus could yet emerge, and the reimposition of restrictions cannot be discounted. Even without new variants, seasonal surges are also a real possibility. To say that we must live with Covid is merely to acknowledge that the virus cannot, for now at least, be defeated. But as the success of the vaccines has shown, its power to harm can be blunted. The high level of booster- or infection-acquired immunity in the population now gives the Government some breathing room. It should make use of it – to ease some restrictions, yes, but also to plan for the next phase of the pandemic.