The Irish Times view on Ireland’s Covid plan: learning from past mistakes

Progress on vaccination will give Government more options, but it should move cautiously

If reopening schools means other sectors must wait longer to reopen, so be it.  Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

If reopening schools means other sectors must wait longer to reopen, so be it. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

In preparing its new “living with Covid” plan, the Government must avoid the mistakes it made with its last one. That five-level framework seemed attractive on paper, setting down a graduated system for responding to the evolving epidemiological situation, but in practice it turned out to be too rigid to work. Almost as soon as it had been published, the Government broke with it. Partly that was due to special pleading from interest groups, but the bigger problem was the rigidity of the plan itself. Covid-19 is a stealthy, fast-moving adversary; flexibility and agility are essential in the response.

Taking a longer view, there will be three phases to the battle. The first, aimed at pushing down case numbers to the lowest possible level, will continue at least until mid-April or May. Steady progress is being made, and it must be maintained. A proper quarantine system will help, as will continuing support for individuals and businesses. Within this phase, getting children back to school must be the priority. Young people’s prospects are being damaged with every day that they must stay at home. If reopening schools means other sectors must wait longer to reopen, so be it. The Government may wish to set out a reopening sequence, indicating which sectors will reopen in what order, but it would be a mistake set down timelines that could later have to be re-written.

Assuming schools have reopened and the virus remains at low levels, a second phase will begin in June. By that time, under the current timetable, over-70s will have had their second jabs, giving them significant protection against the disease. The inward flow of vaccines should be much faster by then, so the health system must be ready to manage those deliveries and get shots into arms as quickly as possible. The test-and-trace system will become more, not less, important in this phase, as it will be needed to identify new outbreaks and activate a rapid State response.

Progress on vaccination will give Government more options. But again it should move cautiously. In particular, foreign travel must remain heavily curtailed, as the risk of importing new variants which could cause new spikes and undermine the vaccination programme will remain high.

The third phase will begin when a critical mass of the population has been inoculated, a point that could be reached by September. By then, assuming vaccines remain effective, life will have begun to feel a lot more normal. But this is actually when we must learn to “live with Covid”. Assuming the virus will just go away is wishful thinking. It will likely remain with us, the nature of its threat changing over time. That means some parts of pandemic life will remain in place well into the medium-term. The remarkable speed of vaccination development tells us this is a battle humanity can win. But this is only one battle; the war will go on for some time yet.

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