The Irish Times view on the Covid-19 plan: a roadmap for the next phase

The strengths and weaknesses of the Government’s approach were on view again with the publication of its “Living with Covid-19” plan

Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly at Dublin Castle on Tuesday. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography

Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly at Dublin Castle on Tuesday. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography

 

Six months into the Covid-19 pandemic, the crisis and our response to it grows more, not less, complex. We know much more about the disease now than we did in February, but whereas the initial policy response was a blunt and desperate lockdown, we know now that if we are to live with the coronavirus for months and perhaps years, our response will have to be dynamic and fluid. Communicating a fast-changing, regionally-differentiated strategy to an increasingly weary public, and counting on its buy-in, was proving a difficult challenge for the Government – a challenge worsened by the administration’s tendency to muddle its messaging.

The strengths and weaknesses of the Government’s approach were on view again on Tuesday with the publication of its “Living with Covid-19” plan. The document is a comprehensive attempt to bring the multitude of policy areas affected by Covid-19 together, to outline the State’s response and to guide the public on how the next six months will play out. The five-level plan does a good job of laying out a framework that everyone can follow. It strikes a realistic tone, insisting that suppression of the disease is an attainable target but acknowledging that things could yet get a lot worse. Living with Covid-19 boils down to a set of trade-offs, and by and large the document gets these right. The priorities are healthcare and education; if that means accepting restrictions on social life, for example, it’s a price that must be paid.

Unfortunately, the release of the plan was overshadowed by a confusing message about Dublin, which is officially at level 2 but with a number of added restrictions not set out in the plan itself. The reasons may be understandable – level 3 carries with it quite extensive limits on daily activities, and there is a danger of an unstoppable momentum towards a level 5 lockdown taking hold – but it was an inauspicious start. Flexibility is important, but if the leaps between levels are too wide, better to build in more levels than to have to bypass the framework on day one.

In theory the new Oversight Group will serve a useful purpose in feeding more perspectives into the policy process, but that must not mean a downgrading of public health as the key factor in decision-making (the acting chief medical officer was a regrettable absentee from Tuesday’s press conference). And while the creation of a standalone test-and-trace system, with its own staff, is welcome, it’s worrying that that process is not further advanced. Why not? The document is silent on increasing the capacity of 100,000 tests per week, which has already been reached.

Still, a plan is better than none at all, and a certain ambiguity can be forgiven; in a constantly-evolving battle such as this one, there must always be room for improvisation. Ultimately, its success or failure will be determined only by the country that emerges from the coming winter.

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