The Irish Times view on the Covid-19 response: lessons from lockdown

The Kildare shutdown offers signs of hope, but even local lockdowns can and should be avoided

Prof Philip Nolan of the National Public Health Emergency Team and acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn. For a localised lockdown to work, as Prof Philip Nolan  has pointed out, it must be imposed quickly. Photograph: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Prof Philip Nolan of the National Public Health Emergency Team and acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn. For a localised lockdown to work, as Prof Philip Nolan has pointed out, it must be imposed quickly. Photograph: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

 

The past few weeks have taken a heavy toll on people and businesses in Co Kildare, where Covid-19 outbreaks in meat-packing plants resulted in the imposition of county-wide restrictions, but the apparent success of those measures in arresting the spread of the virus in the area offers some encouragement that the policy of rapid, targeted response to individual outbreaks – as opposed to the blunt instrument of a nationwide lockdown – can keep the disease under control. That accords with the current view of the World Health Organisation, whose director for Europe Hans Kluge believes the region can manage outbreaks with localised controls and without recourse to wider lockdowns.

Some caveats apply, however. For a localised lockdown to work, as Prof Philip Nolan of the National Public Health Emergency Team has pointed out, it must be imposed quickly. Allowing the cycle of exponential growth to take hold would ensure the rapid spread of the virus beyond the borders of any one county. Moreover, the strategy of rapid intervention can only succeed if the State’s test-and-trace system is fit for purpose.

The recent rise in cases across the island has rightly caused concern, but we remain in a position to control Covid-19

Big strides have been made in ramping up that system’s capacity since the early, chaotic days of the pandemic in the spring, and last week a record 13,000 tests were carried out in one 24-hour period. But it’s now clear that testing was under-utilised over the early summer, when spare capacity could have been used for wider systematic testing in high-risk settings, meat plants chief among them, thereby detecting the disease at an earlier stage. There are still persistent concerns about tracing, not least the State’s capacity to monitor those who enter the country and pledge to self-quarantine for the required 14 days.

A local lockdown may be preferable to a national shutdown, but it is still an admission of failure and something we must do everything to avoid. Kildare, and to a lesser extent Laois and Offaly, suffered badly over recent weeks. If similar restrictions had to be imposed in Dublin or any of the other large cities, the economic consequences for the State, not to mention for citizens themselves, would be disastrous. They key to ensuring we can keep the virus in check, then, is for all of us to practice those things that are proven to impede its spread: limiting our contacts, distancing from others, washing our hands and covering our face.

The recent rise in cases across the island has rightly caused concern, but we remain in a position to control Covid-19. The incidence of the disease is increasing, but because testing is taking place on a larger scale (and therefore catching more asymptomatic carriers) and young people currently account for the large majority of cases, hospitalisations and deaths remain low. That means we have a window of opportunity to learn the lessons from the midlands and apply them urgently.

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