The Irish Times view on easing of Covid restrictions: A small step forward

Fresh in everyone’s mind is the crisis caused by the December reopening, which caused progress to be rolled back

 All quiet on O’Connell Street in Dublin at the weekend as the Covid-19  pandemic lockdown continued. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

All quiet on O’Connell Street in Dublin at the weekend as the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown continued. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

This morning the country takes a small but important step towards reopening after a long lockdown necessitated by the spike in Covid-19 infections at Christmas. For the first time in three months, children of all ages will return to school and the 5km travel limit is to be scrapped in favour of in-county travel. Construction on homes, early-learning and childcare projects is to resume, and the guidance on mixing between households will be slightly relaxed.

The changes will benefit young people in particular. They have suffered terribly from the loss of in-person education and the contraction of their social world that that entailed. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have been hit hardest, and it will take some time, as well as significant work by the State and teachers, to address the short- and long-term effects of the shutdown on young people’s development. Getting classrooms open again is the first step, but the hard work really only starts now.

Covid-19 is close to being gone from nursing homes, it now poses much less of a risk to healthcare workers

That makes it all the more important to ensure there is no return to lockdown. This imperative has driven the Government’s cautious, staggered approach to reopening over the coming months. The experience of the partial reopening of schools since last month has been positive, with public health officials saying it did not cause a leap in infections. They will be watching building sites over the coming weeks for signs of new outbreaks there. But watching is not enough: the authorities must take an aggressive approach to testing and tracing in all high-risk settings.

Fresh in everyone’s mind is the crisis caused by the December reopening, which caused progress to be rolled back and led to an almost complete shutdown. Of course that could happen again; the British strain of the virus, which is now dominant in Ireland, needs little help to spread rapidly.

Slow timetable

There are three things working in the State’s favour that did not apply a few months ago, however. The first is the slow timetable for reopening, which can be revised or paused in response to any deterioration in the epidemiological situation. The second is mandatory quarantine, which should deter many travellers. And the third is the vaccination campaign, which has delivered more than a million shots into people’s arms.

Covid-19 is close to being gone from nursing homes, it now poses much less of a risk to healthcare workers, and by mid- May all over-70s will be fully vaccinated. Those gains are not necessarily irreversible – new strains could yet resist the shots that are in use – but for now they offer a clear roadmap towards the end of the pandemic. Based on delivery pledges from manufacturers, there will be enough vaccines in the country comfortably to meet the target of giving 80 per cent of adults a first dose by the end of June. Progress at that pace would result in a transformed outlook by the summer.

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