The Irish Times view on the delayed reopening: a flawed process in the spotlight

A better-organised process for deciding on public health restrictions might have led to a different outcome

In the end, the Government found itself having to choose between the hospitality industry and its public health advisers. That meant there was only going to be one outcome. Having lost so much of their business over the past year, pub and restaurant-owners are understandably desperate to reopen and feel they can do so while keeping their staff and customers safe.

But with the more transmissible Delta variant making steady inroads across the island, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) argued for a pause in the reopening so as to buy more time for the rapidly-progressing vaccination campaign. Of course the Government could have ignored Nphet’s advice, but the politics of the situation made that impossible. Having reopened too quickly late last year, a decision that made the third wave worse than it would otherwise have been, it would have been very difficult for Ministers again to overrule their public health advisers, especially given the alarming scenarios that Nphet produced.

Yet the process for arriving at the decision has been a mess. And if it had been better organised, the outcome might have been different. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly says the first anyone in Government heard of Nphet's modelling scenarios was on Monday evening, when the relevant Cabinet sub-committee had to make a decision. This is despite the fact that the Delta variant has been spreading in Britain and elsewhere for quite some time.

Hospital Report

Total doses distributed to Ireland Total doses administered in Ireland
9,452,860 7,856,558

Government seems to be suggesting that it had no warning that Nphet was going to recommend allowing only vaccinated people dine indoors

Nphet’s models set out four broad scenarios for case numbers, hospital admissions and deaths, though they describe such a wide spectrum of possibilities that their value as a policy tool is quite limited. In any event, Nphet’s job is to be cautious; its remit implies a singular focus on keeping the public as safe as possible. In a properly functioning system, its advice would feed into a rigorous and broader evaluation process involving debate on what level of risk the Government and society are willing to accept. Given the time constraints, such an evaluation process simply could not take place.


Moreover, Government seems to be suggesting that it had no warning that Nphet was going to recommend allowing only vaccinated people dine indoors. Even without a formal recommendation to that effect, however, Government could have been working to establish how such a system might feasibly operate.

Instead that work seems to be starting only now, six months into the vaccination campaign and a week before indoor dining was set to resume. It’s unlikely to be a runner in any event. The practicalities of such a system for the industry would be very onerous. And at the level of principle, it would seem questionable to introduce two social tiers in this way, in effect punishing those younger people who have sacrificed so much this past year and are unvaccinated through no fault of their own.