The Irish Times view on outdoor gatherings: the cost of failing to plan
Poor messaging, gaps in policy and a failure to use the past year to plan seriously for outdoor living in our cities are big parts of the problem
Dublin is chronically short of bins and toilets, but city officers can be forgiven for wondering whether by making gathering spots more attractive they will draw bigger crowds. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Many people will have found it disheartening to see pictures of huge crowds gathered on the streets of Dublin and other cities at the weekend. After more than a year of social distancing and a shutdown of all large gatherings, the scenes were jarring at best. Chief medical officer Tony Holohan said he was “absolutely shocked” at scenes he witnessed in Dublin city centre on Saturday evening.
The issue arises at a sensitive time in the pandemic. The vaccination programme is continuing apace, with half the adult population having received at least one dose. That has resulted in a collapse in hospital admissions and deaths.
However, just 20 per cent of adults have full protection, leaving the large majority susceptible to some extent to Covid-19. The country is a long way from achieving herd immunity, which could require up to 80 per cent coverage, and with the highly transmissible Indian variant now present on the island there remains a very real risk of a fourth wave that would set back plans to reopen the economy over the coming weeks.
The general response to the weekend’s scenes has been to seek a single culprit. Young people have been condemned for recklessness. Dublin city council is assailed for failing to provide enough bins and public toilets. Publicans are criticised for selling take-away drinks and public health officials are mocked for being too cautious. Yet there is no single reason for what happened. Yes, people should take personal responsibility and be careful not to mix in big crowds. At the same time, many of those who gathered – people who have endured a great deal over the past year, needless to say – may have felt they were in compliance with public health advice by mixing with a small number of direct contacts outdoors. Yes, Dublin is chronically short of bins and toilets, but city officers can be forgiven for wondering whether by making gathering spots more attractive they will draw bigger crowds.
The key point is that this could have been foreseen and planned for. For months, the Government’s public messaging has repeated that this will be “an outdoors summer”, but even though we are now almost 15 months into the pandemic, discussions about outdoor living – dining areas, civic amenities and all the rest – seem only to be beginning. A tender for public toilets in Dublin is still at “expressions of interest” stage. Gardaí are clearly struggling to know how best to respond. Even at Government level there appear to be differing views on whether closing streets where people congregate is a good idea or not. Against that background, it’s not good enough for those in positions of power simply to complain about young people’s behaviour. Poor messaging, gaps in policy coherence and a failure to use the past year to plan seriously for outdoor living in our cities are significant parts of the problem.